A Triple Win

Twenty-two years ago, an unlikely chain of events was set off in an unlikely place – in the heart of an ‘avowed capitalist’ – an entrepreneur who was, at the time, 60 years old and at the top of his career as the founder and CEO of Interface, a billion dollar commercial carpet tile company based in Atlanta. Today, that company finds itself on the brink of victory – poised to celebrate the final leg in a journey to eliminate the global enterprise’s environmental footprint by 2020. Erin Meezan has been at the helm of sustainability for the company for 6 years.

In 1994, our Founder and CEO Ray Anderson challenged our then 21-year-old company to adopt a bold vision, one that required new thinking and a new model for business. His challenge was sparked by a personal “epiphany,” that was prompted by a question from a visionary project manager working on a green building long before they were mainstream. He asked, “What is Interface doing for the environment?” While that question made the rounds at Interface, a book landed serendipitously on Ray’s desk – The Ecology of Commerce, by radical environmental thinker, Paul Hawken. Hawken’s thesis was – and is – that the Earth and all of its natural systems are in decline, and that business and industry are not only the culprit, but also the most well-positioned to reverse the damage. Ray was catalyzed by Hawken’s premise, and with the same entrepreneurial spirit by which he had built a market for modular carpet where none had existed, he challenged the company to chart a course forward, toward zero environmental footprint.

We didn’t have a map, but Ray’s vision was a compass. As our path unfolded before us, a passion for this higher purpose of sustainability took hold with our people and our culture was transformed. We embraced that original vision to the point that it became part of our corporate DNA, and over the last 22 years we have revolutionized our company, our operations and our products, deeply reducing the environmental impacts of our business and creating products that manifest our Mission Zero® – our shorthand for our promise to eliminate our environmental footprint by 2020. Along the way, innovative thinking has contributed to our bottom line, with products that have broken new ground in terms of design and performance, and with a goodwill in the marketplace that has been unprecedented.

By the numbers, some of the most significant accomplishments we have measured to date:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions reduced 92% from 1996
  • 84% of energy used at Interface comes from renewable sources
  • Waste to landfill reduced by 91%, water reduced by 87%
  • 50% of the materials we use to make all our products are from recycled or bio-based sources
  • The carbon footprint of our products has been reduced by 50% since we started our sustainability mission

In a more abstract way – and perhaps a better measure of our impact – is the role we have played changing the conversation of business. We've been called "the most sustainable company in the world" and "the poster child for sustainable business" and we've heard from countless companies about the influence we have had on them as a “case study” of sorts – an open and accessible example of what is possible when industry takes a broader role of its place in society.  We are a relatively small company, fewer than 5,000 people globally, but we believe our impact is much greater than our size.

As our goal year of 2020 approaches, our focus is shifting from the relentless drive to zero that has typified the first 22 years of this journey, and towards the positive social impacts that have accrued along the way. We are inspired to think more broadly about our human impact, and perhaps the best example of early thinking on the next mission is found in a project that we piloted four years ago called Net-Works®.

Net-Works: Inclusive Business

Among the many challenges facing us in eliminating our environmental footprint is phasing out a reliance on virgin raw materials, particularly those which are petrochemically-based, like nylon – the primary feedstock of carpet tile. Looking at this problem through the lens of social entrepreneurship, a small team at Interface wondered, is there an opportunity for innovation that might create a social as well as an environmental impact? Could we build a model for “inclusive business?”

An inclusive business is an economically profitable enterprise that creates employment for low-income communities – either directly, or by bringing a developing group into the value chain – and that results in positive socioeconomic and environmental impact.

It starts with understanding the problem of poverty. It may be difficult to imagine, but over 3 billion people (nearly half the world’s population) live on less than $2.50 USD per day.

For many living in coastal and lakeside communities in developing countries, fishing, seaweed farming, and small-scale agriculture are the only ways to bring home food for the day. These livelihoods carry a high level of risk, and people have little access to financial services or social security in the event of natural disasters or other emergencies.

In a world where global pressures on natural resources are increasing exponentially, conservation efforts are often difficult and expensive, and the costs of conservation often fall disproportionately on the poorest people living in rural areas.

As it turns out, the main tool of the trade for those working in commercial fishing is nylon nets. And nylon is the primary feedstock of Interface’s carpet tile products. Finding ways to improve both the quality and quantity of recyclable nylon is critical to the company’s commitment to get off oil, and by connecting the dots between that goal and the ability for some of the world’s poorest people to become part of our supply chain required a unique and unexpected partnership with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), one of the world’s foremost marine conservation experts.

Net-Works is the result of that unlikely partnership – one which provides a creative solution, sourcing waste fishing nets as a way to close the manufacturing loop. It is a triple win as spent nets, when left to accumulate on beaches and shorelines, contribute to the accumulation of plastic debris in our oceans – one of the most pervasive, persistent and damaging forms of pollution. The nets take hundreds of years to break down, and continue to catch and kill marine life with no human benefit – an outcome known as ghost fishing.

Through Net-Works, community members in fishing villages gather and sell nets to nylon manufacturer Aquafil, who in turn recycles the nets into yarn that Interface can then purchase. The program provides a valuable source of additional income that community members can use to acquire food in times of need, support education choices, or to invest into other livelihood opportunities.

The Net-Works team works to develop socio-economic infrastructure at each collection site as a platform for net collection, either setting up new community banking systems or strengthening existing networks, that provide financial services and valuable savings education for men and women.

Net-Works launched as a pilot program in 2012 and today the program is expanded into three regions in the Philippines and also to the Lake Ossa region of Cameroon, where similar conditions are met with different challenges. And it’s making a difference:

Net-Works Impact to date:

  • 93,000 (205,029 lbs) nets collected
  • 400 families involved and given access to finance
  • 55,000 people seeing a cleaner environment

By the end of 2020, Interface aims to reach 1 million people with a cleaner environment, give 10,000 families access to finance through community bank membership, and better protect the marine ecosystems where they live through the Net-Works supply chain.

Through Net-Works, we are committed to creating a scalable model that is easily replicated in any region and by any partnership of social enterprise and business – in other words, to create a viable model for inclusive business that can, when shared, become a better way of doing business.

“What’s so important about initiatives like Net-Works is the experience that you gain; it’s a win environmentally, it’s a win socially, it’s generating livelihoods for the poor, and then there are also multiple sources of income,” said Stu Hart, Grossman Chair of Sustainable Business at the University of Vermont. “So it’s a win, win, win proposition, and to me, that’s the gold standard.”

Twenty-two years ago, our company embarked on a journey that no one could have imagined for our petroleum-dependent carpet manufacturing business. It’s our view that the future will continue to be shaped by unlikely pioneers who choose the uncharted path; by dreamers and innovators and entrepreneurs and inventors and nonprofits and big business, all uniting in ways we can’t yet imagine to solve the challenges that have, on the other hand, become very clear to us – climate change, poverty and prosperity for all. It’s a noble calling and one that modern business and industry are keen to heed, and a mission that will forever guide Interface.

This article was originally published in G7 Summit and can be viewed online here.

Erin Meezan As Vice President of Sustainability for Interface, Erin gives voice to the company’s conscience, ensuring that its strategy and goals are in sync with the aggressive sustainability vision established 20 years ago.