"I stood indicted as a plunderer, a destroyer of the earth, a thief, stealing my own grandchildren's future. And I thought, My God, someday what I do here will be illegal. Someday, they'll send people like me to jail." - Ray Anderson
Interface was founded by Ray Anderson in 1973 and grew to become the world leader in carpet tiles with a turnover of a billion dollars. But in the summer of 1994 a sales manager left a memo on Ray’s desk:
“Some customers want to know what we are doing for the environment. What can we say to them?”
Anderson knew it would not be enough to simply tell customers Interface complied with environmental legislation. So a sustainability task force was set up to give a better answer to the customers’ question. Anderson was due to give the kick-off speech, but he didn’t know what to say. That is, until he read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce.
Hawken's message was that the world’s major corporations are the only institutions powerful enough to save us from the environmental disaster they are now creating. This realization led Anderson to set an “impossible” goal. He wanted to build a successful, profitable business that would also make a contribution to restoring the environment.
Interface would be fully sustainable by 2020: Mission Zero.
Many, including Wall Street, found it absurd.
How to Climb the Mountain
To begin with, the definition of “waste” was significantly sharpened, so that all fossil fuels were also defined as waste and, therefore, eliminated. The company decided to climb Mount Sustainability on seven strategic fronts.
Employees’ ideas play a key role in attaining these objectives. Interface launched a company-wide program known as QUEST: Quality Utilizing Employees’ Suggestions and Teamwork. Employees’ ideas are actively collected and used to reduce energy consumption, eliminate waste and communicate milestones so that employees know that their contributions have effect.
But, Interface discovered they could only directly influence 17 percent of its impact on the climate.
The rest was accounted for by the use of carpet tiles by customers (15 percent) and by the raw materials (68 percent). To hit these numbers, Interface had to seek out creative solutions in the production chain and totally overhaul its business model in some areas. For example:
Adhesives: Carpet tiles are usually fixed with adhesives. This means volatile compounds are released and this is “waste.” Interface carried out research into the gecko’s ability to walk upside down on a flat surface. The structure of a gecko’s feet provided the inspiration for the stickers that are now used to connect the corners of the carpet tiles. Because adhesives are no longer needed, no more volatile compounds are released and the tiles are easier to lay and to remove. What's more, this method is cheaper.
Fishing nets: A partnership has been set up with fishermen in the Philippines. There are countless discarded fishing nets floating around in the waters of this region, causing untold damage to wildlife. Interface arranges for these nets to be collected by local fishermen because they are made of the same polyamides that are used to make carpets, which is exactly what is being done with them now.
Second Life: Customers can hand in their old carpet tiles when they buy new ones. Interface uses the old tiles as the raw material for new ones. There are special machines in the factories to unpick the old carpet tiles so they can be used to make new products.
These are just a few examples from a very long list of initiatives but they illustrate the power of pursuing an “impossible” goal.
Six Years Still to Go
Today, 70 percent of that original goal has already been achieved. Moreover:
Total energy consumption has fallen by 39 percent since 1996
Seven of the nine factories operate with 100 percent renewable electricity
Forty-nine percent of raw materials are now recycled
Water consumption has been reduced by 81 percent
With an annual turnover of $932 million, Interface is the world market leader.
But Interface is not euphoric just yet. Because as they say themselves, the final steps up Mount Sustainability are the hardest.
Lesson from Interface: It Can Be Done
So what was key in Interface's progress?
A powerful sense of urgency and excitement: This is expressed in an inspiring vision (Mission Zero) both inspiring and challenging. It is a radical vision, supported by company leadership and has also been translated into a practical strategy (the "seven fronts").
Genuine focus: Management is genuinely focused on progress toward the audacious goal. There is a high priority on finding solutions that create value for customers, employees, shareholders and society. The ultimate aim of Mission Zero is always kept in sight and there is a willingness to embrace radical changes in working methods.
Inspiring collaboration: Because Interface cannot achieve Mission Zero alone; they inspire customers, suppliers and other stakeholders to work together on their mission. Many audacious goals sound like "we want to be Number 1" or “we want to be the best,” but what Interface teaches us is that your audacious goal can inspire others to help you achieve it.
But the company also raises a number of intriguing questions:
Is our organization’s audacious aim so inspiring for others that they will help us to achieve it?
Is it so challenging that the goal helps us change our business models for the better?
And, how can we make a substantial contribution to society through a successful business?