Never Stop Climbing

Never Stop Climbing

Interface founder Ray Anderson is determined to reach the summit of 'Mount Sustainability.'

Ray Anderson's gentle Southern drawl is as soothing as a glass of lemonade on a warm summer's day. It's not necessarily what you'd expect from the "radical industrialist."

Anderson has made a name for himself -- and his company, Interface Inc. -- through his dogged determination to guide the company toward total sustainability by 2020. Nine years from now, Anderson wants to see the Atlanta-based manufacturer of modular carpet achieve a goal perhaps once viewed as laughable in the industry: operating with zero environmental footprint.

For Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface, that means ascending a metaphorical mountain he calls "Mount Sustainability."

Ray Anderson

Seven faces of
'Mount Sustainability'

1. Eliminate waste

2. Eliminate emissions

3. Renewable energy

4. Close the loop

5. Transportation

6. Culture shift

7. Redesign commerce
The trek began in 1994, when Anderson read Paul Hawken's book, "The Ecology of Commerce." At the time, Anderson was seeking inspiration for an upcoming speech he was to deliver to an Interface environmental task force.

Anderson's reaction to the book was an epiphany for him "and a seminal moment for us," Anderson recalls.

"I challenged [the task force] to go beyond sustainable, to make our company a restorative company -- to put back more than we actually take from the earth, and to do good for the earth, not just harm."

Such a statement probably still seems a bit radical, so much so that the president of an environmental think tank once called Anderson the "radical industrialist." Today, however, Interface is flourishing, and the company's sustainability efforts have become inextricably linked with its identity -- and its strengthening balance sheet.

In 2010, Interface grew its full-year revenue nearly 12% to $961.8 million, marking one of the best years in its history. Full-year operating income increased from $64.7 million, or 7.5% of sales, in 2009, to $95.9 million, or 10% of sales, in 2010.

Since 1995, Interface estimates that it has saved $438 million by scaling the first of seven "faces" of Mount Sustainability: waste elimination. By eliminating waste from its products and processes, Anderson notes the company has "saved money from Day 1," and it has used the savings to pay for employee training, capital equipment and other expenses that support its sustainability objectives.

"And then as we figured out how to attack the other six faces of the mountain, we were way ahead of the cost curve already," he says.

Inspired by Nature

Simply getting in tune with nature has boosted the company's top and bottom lines. When InterfaceFLOR lead product designer David Oakey -- at Anderson's urging -- read Janine Benyus's book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," Oakey sent his team into the forest to learn how nature would design a floor covering.

"They spent a day in the forest, looking at the ground, and it finally dawned on them that every square yard is different from every other square yard," Anderson recalls.

The forest-floor walk inspired the Entropy floor-covering line, made up of individual carpet tiles that are similar but not identical. Entropy quickly became the best-selling carpet in its product line, and today the 80 Interface products similarly inspired by the "randomness of nature" account for more than 40% of its total sales.

From a production standpoint, the deliberately imperfect Entropy line yielded "unexpected advantages," such as making defects a non-issue and eliminating the need for dye lots, Anderson says.

"All dye lots work together as one," he says. "So that's a huge savings in inventory."

Anderson estimates that the company has made it 60% of the way to the top of Mount Sustainability, but there's tough terrain still ahead.

On the fourth face -- closing the loop -- Interface gets 40% of its raw materials from recycled or bio-based sources. However, in a recent sustainability update, the company lamented that "access to postconsumer recycled nylon is limited and costly," and the company is working with suppliers to make the complex transition from "petrochemically derived fibers" to fully sustainable sources.

Anderson, though, is not discouraged.

"I think I could probably claim without fear of contradiction that today Interface is a restorative company, even though we have this last 40% of the way to go on sustainability," Anderson says, "because of the other companies that have looked at what we're doing and said, 'Hey, we can do that too.'"

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