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Interface CEO: Getting Off Oil is Good for Business

May 24, 2012
Since 1994, 'our eyes have been opened to the enormous potential for innovation around new forms of energy, new inputs and keeping the materials that we do use in a technical loop through reclamation and recycling,' says Interface Chairman and CEO Dan Hen

You might not think of the carpet-manufacturing industry and the petroleum industry as complementary. But if you're talking about nylon carpet, the truth is that it's so energy-intensive -- in terms of raw materials and manufacturing -- that the carpet industry easily might be thought of as an extension of the petroleum industry.

Whether oil is $18 a barrel -- as it was back in 1994 -- or $100 a barrel like it is today, fossil fuels play an essential role in the global economy. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, American industry has had an unhealthy reliance on petroleum-based energy.

What is typically not acknowledged on anybody's balance sheet is the fact that the use of oil exacts a massive, global environmental toll on the planet.

Since 1994, when Interface Inc. (IW 500/475) began looking at our business through the lens of sustainability, moving away from virgin raw materials -- particularly those that are petroleum-based -- our eyes have been opened to the enormous potential for innovation around new forms of energy, new inputs and keeping the materials that we do use in a technical loop through reclamation and recycling.

Interface CEO Dan Hendrix: "Our experience at Interface tells us that barriers to innovation around sustainability aren't real."
You can trace the raw materials we use straight from the well-head: Nylon is derived from petroleum, transported to our factories and then transformed, first during the yarn thread-up, where giant spools of yarn are assembled and sent to tufting, where the beautiful face fiber of our carpet-tile products emerges.

Giant rolls of tufted-face fiber are transported to the backing line, where additional energy is used to apply vinyl backing.

Finally, the rolls are cut into squares, transported to the customer, and installed in offices, hospitals, hotels and retail stores.

Re-imagining our company as a sustainable enterprise means we have reconsidered that traditional model of textile manufacturing, especially the carbon impacts of what we do.

A 'Whole-Systems Approach'

Today, manufacturing -- as described above -- looks much the same, but efficiencies mean that our process is 47% less energy-intensive than it was in 1996, when Interface started measuring ecometrics.

Non-renewable energy use per unit of production is down 64%, and 31% of the energy we use is from renewable sources.

GHG emissions are down 34%, and 44% of total raw materials used are recycled or bio-based.

As we learned early on in our journey, it is not about one product or one process, or even one input. It is about looking at our business from every angle and reducing our dependency on virgin materials and fossil-based fuels throughout the system -- from ideation and design, through manufacture and distribution, and ultimately, by taking responsibility for our products at the end of their useful life, keeping that valuable, post-consumer feedstock in the loop.

Examples of this whole-systems approach to innovation have included tapping a local landfill in LaGrange, Ga., to capture methane to partially fuel our manufacturing process, and installing what was -- at the time -- the largest commercial solar array in the state of California to replace a portion of our grid electricity with solar energy.

We've also worked on more of renewable and green energy, and currently have eight factories running on 31% green energy.

Regarding raw materials, we are pioneering commercial carpet applications for bio-based yarn that is created from corn and soy, building out an infrastructure for end-of-life carpet reclamation and partnering with yarn suppliers to recapture used-face fiber to be reconstituted into nylon and capture used vinyl backing to be recycled into new backing.

In yet still another example of innovative thinking, we are looking at the larger waste stream, and experimenting with recycling other forms of nylon -- for example, commercial fishnets -- as a potential source of post-consumer raw-material inputs.

Educating Our Customers

Since 1995, we've been looking at dematerializing our product, reducing the "face weight" (the ounces of nylon yarn used to tuft the face) and experimenting with backing construction.

A multiyear partnership with Boeing Co. (IW 500/15), in which we developed a special lightweight carpet tile installed on Southwest Airlines' first "green plane," allowed us the chance to innovate to airline specifications and expand our thinking about the structural design of our product, how it performs at a lighter weight, and how we might apply what works in an airplane in, say, a dentist's office.

Along the way, we've worked to educate our customers about our process and products, so that they can contribute to our knowledge base about what works in the marketplace.

We have committed to full transparency and recently committed to develop environmental product declarations (EPDs) for all new products going forward. EPDs detail not only the product's "ingredients," but also its environmental impacts across the entire life cycle of the carpet tile.

We believe that increasing our customer's literacy about energy and water use, toxicity, recycled content and the like will enhance their ability to make better purchasing decisions, and we're not alone in this thinking. Nikon Corp. (IW 1000/402), Barilla Pasta and Knoll are all using EPDs to open the dialogue around environmental impacts with customers.

Barriers Aren't Real

The future of manufacturing depends on innovation that takes into account constrained resources, but that doesn't mean our ability to be successful is limited.

Our experience at Interface tells us that barriers to innovation around sustainability -- like the idea that sustainability is expensive or that it creates unwelcome trade-offs -- aren't real. They're just perceived.

Dan Hendrix is chairman and CEO of Interface Inc., a $1 billion global modular-carpet manufacturer. Dan recently was elected chairman of the board of directors of Atlanta-based Interface, succeeding company founder Ray Anderson.

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