Green Spot: Interface, Inc. -- Zero Sum Game For Good

Jan. 25, 2008
Already easy on the environment, Interface is looking to go "zero-impact" through aggressive impact reduction programs.

It is an understatement to say that Interface, Inc. founder and chairman Ray Anderson is an icon of the "industrial revolution" known as the sustainable manufacturing movement. At his company, Anderson is known for redesigning processes and products, pioneering new technologies and reducing or eliminating waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and sources of energy. And in boardrooms and lecture halls worldwide, Anderson is a powerful advocate of sustainability strategies for modern manufacturing, a few of which he took the time to share below.

IW: How are you addressing energy efficiency?

Anderson: Since 1996, when the baseline was first established, Interface has reduced consumption of fossil fuels in carpet making globally by 55% per unit of output, through process improvement, new technologies and product redesign -- a process we call whole system optimization. Efficiencies are key here -- the cheapest and most secure energy supply of all is energy not used through efficiencies.

Imagine, for example, that a mechanical engineer is commissioned to design a production line to produce the same product at the same production rate as the production line he designed and built 10 years before. The process requires the pumping of a lot of viscous liquid. This time, he designs it to use 93% less horsepower (1/14 as much!). This time, he specifies big pipes and small motors to pump the viscous material, rather than small pipes and big motors. He arranges to install the big, straight, short pipes first, and then install the production line thereafter; rather than installing the production line first and bending pipes here and there to fit them to the line. He has largely defeated the pump's enemy, friction. He now knows that friction varies inversely with the 5th power of pipe diameter, and every bend in a pipe further increases friction and decreases efficiency, as does distance (i.e., pipe length). Doesn't every engineer learn these things in school? Apparently not; this is "new thinking". And, the entire production line costs less to build than its counterpart built 10 years before, and less to operate. The engineer has practiced whole system optimization, new thinking that has evolved from just 10 years before.

IW: Have you evaluated renewable (i.e., solar and wind) production on-site?

Anderson: Experimenting with renewable and alternative forms of energy, and with the amount and forms of energy we use, has been a focus of our sustainability journey. Renewable energy accounts for 16% of the total energy used in manufacturing facilities at Interface. Energy derived from biomass, landfill gas, and green electricity are a part of our overall strategy to increase the use of renewable energy. Three facilities currently have photovoltaic arrays onsite, and seven facilities have achieved 100% renewable electricity, through a combination of on-site generation, the purchase of renewable energy credits and the purchase of green electricity through the grid, where available.

Interface's strategy for ownership versus partnership is different for each facility, and takes into account the facility's location, energy demand, and local climate. For example, Interface actually has sites with solar power installations in sunny Southern California and Southwest Georgia.

At other facilities, we have contracts with local utilities for various forms of renewable energy, including one facility which uses biomass tapped from a local landfill, a project Interface pioneered with the city of LaGrange, Ga., and the EPA's landfill project. Capturing methane and converting it to natural gas to power boilers at the Interface plant (and power to other local businesses) has proved to be a win/win/win -- for the company, which has a renewable energy source; for the community, who now breathe cleaner air; and for the city, who now has a new revenue stream.

IW: How are you addressing facilities and equipment management?

Anderson: As a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council, Interface views LEED as a the gold standard, and have certified a number of our facilities, including the first ever LEED Commercial Interiors Platinum project, the company's Atlanta showroom. We have since certified a showroom in Shanghai, a factory in Thailand, and have other projects in the works.

All our manufacturing facilities meet ISO 14001, an environmental management systems that helps organizations manage the environmental impacts of their operations while always working toward continuous improvement. ISO 14001 is recognized and accepted worldwide.

IW: How are you addressing waste reduction?

Anderson: Waste reduction not only lightens our footprint, it improves the quality of our products. It is another of the seven fronts upon which Interface is pursuing zero footprint, and to date, Interface has reduced and/or avoided over $350 million USD in waste; funding which has contributed to our ability to fund R&D for sustainable development.

Waste reduction is accomplished at each business unit via self-managed QUEST (Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions and Teamwork), where Interface associates are incentivized for identifying, reducing and avoiding waste. And while waste reduction was initially an internal effort focused on the manufacturing process, today we are pioneering waste reduction in other aspects of our business, including reducing and avoiding waste that occurs during product installation.

Recycling is another way to reduce waste to landfills. Since 1995, Interface has diverted over 110 million pounds of carpet from the landfill, and that number is growing exponentially now thanks to an investment in a new technology that allows us to cleanly and efficiently recycle not only carpet backing, but also the nylon face fiber -- valuable molecules that started out as petroleum, but will have life again and again, either as carpet or via other industries, as other recycled plastics products.

IW: How are you addressing pollution prevention?

Anderson: Pollution prevention is part and parcel to all sustainability efforts at Interface, and has been achieved through process redesign and efficiencies.

For example water usage is down by 80% in our carpet facilities. A major factor is abandoning energy- and water-intensive printing for a more efficient way to create patterns with carpet tiles.

Fifty-six percent of our smokestacks have been closed off, obviated by process changes; 84% of our effluent pipes have been abandoned, also obviated by process changes. Our goal is to eliminate smoke stacks and effluent pipes altogether.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from 155 million airline passenger-miles have been offset by the planting of 75,000 trees, though admittedly there's a time lag for the trees to grow; and our vehicle fleet's CO2 emissions have been completely off-set, with "trees for travel" and other off-sets costing just 2-1/2¢ per gallon.

IW: How are you addressing supply chain management?

Anderson: Engaging our suppliers is crucial to our sustainability success as a significant portion of our environmental impacts are in the raw materials that our suppliers provide to us. This is particularly critical in petroleum-based nylon yarn systems, and in PVC-based backing systems. Interface is actively working with suppliers to implement new sustainability practices that will reduce their footprint, thereby reducing ours. For example, we have experimented with bio-based fibers, created using starch instead of petroleum, and have invested heavily in backing recycling technologies to keep PVC within the technical loop.

Today, 20 percent of our raw materials come from renewable resources. By 2020, we expect it to be 100 percent.

IW: Out of all these, which is your company's priority?

Anderson: Interface is pursuing sustainability on seven fronts simultaneously, acknowledging that some fronts are more easily scaled than others. The seven fronts include:

Waste elimination. Eliminating the very concept of waste, emulating nature in our industrial processes.

Benign emissions, to do no further harm to the biosphere. This means re shaping inputs to our factories, working up-stream.

Renewable energy, focusing on energy efficiency first, then harnessing sunlight, wind, bio mass, and (someday) hydrogen -- to cut the fossil fuel umbilical cord to Earth -- and closing any remaining "carbon gap," so to speak, with verified greenhouse gas offsets.

Closed loop material flows, to cut the material umbilical cord to Earth for virgin, fossil-derived materials, by creating cyclical flows.

Resource efficient transportation, to achieve carbon neutrality by eliminating or off-setting greenhouse gases generated in moving people and products.

Sensitivity hook up. Perhaps this is the most important and should come first, because nothing lasting happens without it. It is the culture shift, the mind set shift, to sensitize and educate everyone, changing minds -- customers, suppliers, employees, and communities, to inspire environmentally responsible actions (the thousands of little things everyone can do).

Commerce redesign depends on getting the other six right. Then we hope to pioneer the true service economy, that goes beyond people selling their service -- accountants, consultants, lawyers, teachers, waiters, etc. -- to selling the service that our products provide, instead of selling the products themselves.

IW: Can you give a history of your environmental involvement?

Anderson: Interface is unique in that our journey to sustainability began in 1994 in the C-suite. I was then CEO (and am now chairman and founder), and experienced an epiphany -- a realization that our company's legacy as an industrial company was that of plunderer of the earth. The new vision for the company, as a sustainable and eventually, restorative enterprise, created a new mission for the company and an opportunity to rethink everything, from how products are designed and sourced, to how they are manufactured, distributed, installed and reclaimed.

IW: Have you seen impetus for these types of initiatives from the shop floor?

Anderson: Our journey requires permission from the top to fail, but to learn from failure and try again. Radical innovation simply will not happen without a willingness to risk failure but to learn and try again. Sustainability has fueled a culture of innovation and risk-taking at Interface that has resulted in both process and product evolution. For example, the company's best-selling carpet tile of all time was created during a workshop exploring Biomimicry, or how nature would design a forest floor. The resulting product, Entropy (now the i2 collection) embraces the random chaos inherent in nature's design, reduces installation waste and eliminates the need for dyelots.

IW: How does sustainability fit into your core business strategy?

Anderson: Sustainability doesn't 'fit into the core business strategy' at Interface, it is the core business strategy.

We've exposed and dispelled the false choice between the economy and the environment at Interface. Sustainability has given us a tremendous competitive edge. Our costs are down, our profits are up and our products are the best they've ever been. It's rewarded us with more visibility, more goodwill, more customers than any advertising campaign. And a strong environmental ethic cannot be topped for attracting good people and giving them a powerful reason to stay. Some of the best engineers and managers, the top university graduates have told me, I never thought I'd work for a carpet company. They discover we aren't just making carpets. We're making history.

IW: How, if at all, do you see the regulatory environment changing, and how will it impact your business?

Anderson: I was once quoted in Fortune as saying "In the future, people like me will go to jail." What I meant was that one day, business executives may be rewarded or penalized based on their ability to conserve resources, use alternative fuels, and recycle their products. I'm a proponent of a tax system overhaul, where good things, like profit, won't be taxed, while pollution and other unsustainable practices are taxed. And while it may be a long time before we see taxes more accurately reflect our values, it may not be long before we see regulation around waste. For example, what if it were illegal to landfill carpet? We'd see a lot more innovation around recycling nylon, for example.

IW: How about the environment itself -- is climate change being factored into risk models?

Anderson: We don't really talk about it in terms of risk mitigation, which I consider to be an incidental byproduct of doing the right thing, yet is where so many discussions of sustainability begin and end. At Interface, climate change, and all its effects, are critical to product design and manufacturing in the 21st Century. Scarcity of resources, rising fuel prices, consumer demand for environmentally friendly products, all of these realities are on the minds in the board room and on the factory floor at Interface.

IW: How important is corporate branding in this day and age?

Anderson: It's more important than ever for companies to engage in a conversation with its customers. After all, that's how it started at Interface, when a customer designing a green building said, in 1994, "Interface doesn't get it." After replying, "Doesn't get what?" I got busy trying to understand what it was that this important customer wanted us to 'get.'

It was then that a copy of "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken landed on my desk. Paul's premise, that the Earth and all living systems are in decline, and that business and industry are the only entities pervasive enough to reverse the decline, was a spear in my chest that has never let go.

That conversation with our customer drives branding at Interface today, in a dialogue that we call "Mission Zero, or our promise to eliminate our negative environmental footprint by 2020.

IW: And how are you publicizing your efforts to reach out to value chain partners and consumers?

Anderson: In past years, we have maintained transparency by reporting our sustainability metrics and other information related to process and product changes through a Sustainability Report, and more recently, online. However, in spring of 2008, we will launch, an online "ecosystem" to facilitate the growth of environmental advocacy. It will be a one-stop resource for information on sustainability, a place to find tools to make a difference, and a forum for sharing and inspiring others.

IW: What's the best piece of advice you can give to companies considering "getting with the program"?

Anderson: Thirteen years of near total immersion in this subject have convinced me that a sustainable society into the indefinite future -- whether seven generations or a thousand or more -- depends totally and absolutely on (among other things) a vast, ethically driven, re-design of the industrial system, triggered by an equally vast mind-shift.

But this is the hard part: It will happen, it must happen, one mind at a time, one organization at a time, one technology at a time, one building, one company, one university curriculum, one community, one region, one industry at a time, until the entire system has been transformed into a sustainable system, existing ethically in balance with Earth's natural systems, upon which every living thing utterly depends -- even civilization itself.

For more features like this, see Green Spot: Best Practices in Sustainable Manufacturing. To participate in IW's Green Spot leadership in manufacturing program, email IW Making Green Editor Brad Kenney to start the application process.

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