Interface Inc.


We have a choice to make during our brief visit to this beautiful blue and green living planet: to hurt it or to help it.” 1

– Ray C. Anderson

Background

Interface Inc.is the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet, with annual revenues of over US $1 billion. Founded by Ray C. Anderson in 1973 at Atlanta, the company presently employs around 3,100 people. Its production facilities are spread across four continents, while the sales offices are located in 110 countries. Interface has been named by Fortuneas one of the “Most Admired Companies in America”, and ranked among the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Being heavily reliant on fossil fuels for the manufacture of its products, Interface operated instinctively for two decades, under the traditional industrial model of “take-make-waste”. However, a series of events in 1994 led Ray Anderson to guide the company towards a more sustainable mode of existence. He catalyzed Interface’s transformation into the world’s first industrial enterprise that is devoted to sustainability in the strictest sense: taking nothing from the earth that is not rapidly and naturally renewable, and doing no harm to the biosphere. 1

Interface formulated a bold and inspiring vision of achieving a zero environmental footprint for itself, within the space of 25 years.2Over the course of its challenging journey towards this goal, this exceptionally pioneering corporation has been successful at incorporating sustainability into the very core of its being. The company has reinvented its products, operations as well as the business model, and reaped a diverse range of benefits in the bargain.

During the period 1996-2009, Interface trimmed greenhouse gas emissions by 94%, pared fossil fuel consumption by 60%, improved total energy efficiency by 43%, cut waste to landfill by 80%, and reduced water use by 80%. Half of its raw materials are now recycled, or bio-based. During this period, the company saved over $433 million in costs and also doubled its profits. 

By 2020, Interface aspires to become the first corporation that can comprehensively demonstrate (by its own example) to the entire industrial world the truth and logic of sustainability in all its dimensions: People, Process, Product, Place, and Profit. In doing so, Interface eventually hopes to become a restorative organization through the power of influence.

The Genesis of the Enterprise

Ray Anderson was born in 1934 as the youngest of three brothers. He grew up in the small town of West Point in western Georgia. His father was an Assistant Postmaster, while his mother was a schoolteacher.4During Ray’s childhood, his days were occupied by football, basketball, baseball, and softball while the evenings were reserved for books. It was football that eventually provided him with a sports scholarship to the Georgia Institute of Technology. 5

Ray graduated in 1956 as an Industrial Engineer from Georgia Tech, and spent the next 17 years climbing the corporate ladder so as to gain business experience. As a Vice President at the Callaway Mills Company in 1966, Anderson was passed over for the job of Divisional Head. Feeling wounded and helpless, he began the psychological journey towards entrepreneurship.

In April 1968, the Deering Milliken Company acquired Callaway Mills. Ray was reassigned as the Director of Development for Milliken’s Floor Covering Business.6 page 28He was sent abroad to research the technology for manufacturing carpet tiles, which came as 18-inch squares of carpet. While offering the flexible functionality of modularity, carpet tiles could be installed without adhesive to gain the appearance of the broadloom carpet. 

The novel idea of carpet tiles was eminently suitable for the modern American office buildings that were now characterized by electrical wiring beneath the floor, open plan systems furniture, and office computers. Ray was instrumental in helping Milliken to bring this concept from Europe to America. 

In carpet tiles, Ray also found the niche product that would finally fulfill his entrepreneurial dream. While visiting the British company Carpets International (CI), Ray had been introduced to the “fusion bonding” process that appeared to hold immense potential towards the production of carpet tiles. In January 1973, he persuaded CI to join him in a business venture to bring their patented carpet tile technology to the United States.6 Page 29 

CI invested $750,000 in the proposed 50/50 Anglo-American venture, while Ray Anderson was required to raise $500,000 of the equity. He invested $50,000 out of his life savings, while the family of his childhood friend Lanier Smith committed $200,000 to the endeavour. 18 other people were painstakingly persuaded to collectively chip in with the remaining $250,000. 6 Page 29

Thus, the new venture was finally born in April 1973. It was capitalized under the names of Carpets International-Georgia, Inc. (CIGI) and its sister company, Carpets International-Georgia (Sales). Ray’s American backers entered into a Voting Trust Agreement that effectively made him an equal partner with CI in the new venture. CIGI and CIGI (Sales) were later merged into Interface Flooring Systems, Inc.

The Growth Years (1973 – 1994)

The company’s first year of operations was a financial disaster. The price of petrochemicals (a critical raw material in the carpet industry) had skyrocketed due to the 1973 oil embargo. As a result, the new venture bled one-third of its capital on sales of $800,000. 7

On the other hand, the nascent company continued to benefit from CI’s advanced technology. Superior cutting techniques enabled the company to save 10% on the cost of yarn, while special bonding equipment made it possible to install carpet tiles without glue.

Being easy to remove and replace while also being very pleasant in appearance, carpet tiles rapidly gained popularity in America during the mid-seventies. The fledgling firm managed to capitalize upon the office building and furnishing boom in the US during that period. 

As a result, the sales of the enterprise tripled to $2.4 million in 1975, rose to $11 million by 1978, galloped to $57 million in 1982, and leaped to $80 million in 1983. The company went public that year, and raised $14.4 million in its initial offering. CIGI controlled nearly 30% of the growing U.S. carpet tile market when its revenues climbed to $107 million in 1984. Its international business also began to pick up around this time, particularly in the Middle East.

CI-Georgia now began a drive to acquire other companies, and also to diversify beyond carpets into related industries. It purchased the specialized textile fabrics company Guilford Industries for $97 million in 1986. This acquisition provided CIGI with the ability to market complete office furnishing packages. The purchase of Rockland Corporation and React-Rite, Inc. for $4 million in that same year helped the company to expand into specialty chemicals.

Meanwhile, Carpets International in the UK had begun to flounder. Through a series of loans that were progressively converted into equity, CI-Georgia completed the purchase of its parent company CI (UK) by 1987. In that landmark year, the company reported revenues of $267 million – nearly double the previous year’s figure. Its name was changed to Interface, Inc. 

With the acquisition of the $ 200 million Dutch company Heuga Holdings (one of the world’s oldest carpet tile manufacturer) in 1988, Interface became the undisputed world leader in carpet tiles. Its acquisition spree continued for the next few years – with the addition of Pandel, Steil, Prince Street, Servoplan, Bentley Mills and numerous other firms to the kitty. 8

Interface generated revenues of $623 million in 1990. After shrinking to $582 million in 1991 on account of the global recession, these rebounded to $625 million by 1993 and paced to $802 million in 1995. Two decades after it was founded, the company appeared to be in great shape. But, was it?

The Ecological Awakening (1994 – 1997)

Even as it was spectacularly successful, Interface was deeply flawed in practice. Ray Anderson arrived at this counter-intuitive conclusion, after experiencing an epiphany in August 1994.

It started with a persistent customer query about Interface’s environmental policies, and the amount of recycled content in its carpets. In order to frame the answers to these questions, and also to formulate Interface’s environmental position, it was decided to constitute a company-wide global task force. Ray was requested to make the keynote remarks at its kick-off meeting.

Anderson had not really given much thought to the environment as a concern up till that point in time. While Interface had indeed taken steps over the previous decade to reduce interior air contamination, its policy as such was simply to comply with the law. Ray thus accepted that invitation very reluctantly, and sweated for three weeks over what to say to that taskforce.

Serendipitously, the 1993 book “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken came to Ray’s attention. It persuasively decried the industrial model under which Interface and its peer corporations were operating. The book detailed how this mode of working was contributing to the plundering of the Earth as well as the eradication of resources that rightfully belonged to the future generations.

As Anderson perused the text, Paul Hawken’s message struck him as a “spear in the chest.” It provided him with a new sense of purpose, and a clear moral imperative. The trigger may have been a subconscious search for a personal legacy, or perhaps the whispers of conscience. Either way, Hawken’s book helped Ray to appreciate the need for Interface to operate more sustainably. It also served as the basic source from which the contours of a bold, new direction emerged. 9

Mount Sustainability
Source: Confessions of a radical industrialist, Page 6

The pioneering and expansive vision that Ray shared with the task force in August 1994 was, “Interface, worldwide the first name in industrial ecology – through substance, not words.”

Anderson also gave that group a mission: “a) To convert Interface into a restorative enterprise – first to reach sustainability and then to become restorative; b) To put back more than we ourselves take, and doing good to Earth (not just no harm) by helping or influencing others to reach toward sustainability.” 10 Page 107Finally, he suggested a strategy: “Reduce, reuse, reclaim, recycle, and redesign. Adopt, advance and share best practices. Develop sustainable technologies, and invest in them when it makes economic sense. Challenge our suppliers to do the same.” 11

Ray likened the journey towards a fully sustainable Interface to the quest for summiting a mountain “higher than Everest.” He considered the endeavour to be difficult, but not impossible if a careful and attentive plan could be put in place. He even coined a name for this effort: EcoSense.

This comprehensive mandate was initially received by Interface managers with a measure of fear and uncertainty that was blended with skepticism and a sense of guilt. At the time, there was a shortage of corporate sustainability frameworks and economically viable green technologies. 

Since prior success stories were hard to come by, people considered it impossible for Interface to survive without the use of any sort of fossil fuel. The absence of any “burning platform” that could trigger a transformational change also contributed to the sense of initial confusion. 

The tone changed once the discussion was reframed around the professional obligation of demonstrating that an oil-dependent company like Interface could also potentially transform itself. In Ray’s view, corporate sustainability would serve as a source of competitive advantage.

Ray Anderson took an impassionate view of the deceit built into the market economy. From his perspective, the economic concept of “externalities” represented all those costs of doing business that never got charged to any one organization’s bottom line. Instead, these were thrust upon society. 

The “free” market appeared to be opportunistic and dishonest in the pricing of exchange value, without regard to cost or use value. It allowed the externalization of any cost that an unwary, uncaring, or gullible public would permit to be externalized. 12

Even though he had recently stepped down as CEO while retaining the Chairman’s role at Interface, Ray possessed a lot of clout within the company. He set out to reinvent its industrial practices to include a sharp focus on sustainability, without sacrificing its business goals. 

Realizing that external help was needed in progressing towards sustainability, Interface drew upon the diverse expertise of a group of environmental luminaries and progressive thinkers. Known within Interface as the Eco Dream Team, this group included Paul Hawken, Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, John Picard, Bill Browning, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, Bill McDonough, Janine Benyus, Robert Fox, Jonathon Porritt, Daniel Quinn, Bernadette Cozart, John Warner, Walter Stahel and David Brower. 

These ecologists inspired the revised direction of Interface. They took part in the process of redefining and promoting the company’s new vision. 13

A preliminary set of ideas & actions were formulated to help the company progress towards the vision. These were focused upon waste reduction (physical waste, energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption) and the introduction of recycled materials into the manufacturing process. 

In the first three and a half years, the company managed to reduce total waste by 40% and realize savings to the tune of $67 million. This kitty helped to fund Interface’s subsequent initiatives towards sustainability. Linking employee bonuses with waste reductions also helped to put the “meat” on the bones of Interface’s business case for sustainability.

The Climb up Mount Sustainability (1997 – 2011)

A major point of acceleration of the sustainability journey came at a company-wide conference in Hawaii in April 1997. The Interface senior management decided to open its Silver Jubilee year by inviting 1,100 stakeholders (including employees and suppliers) from 34 countries to come together at a common platform. 

The Sustainability Principles
Source: http://www.naturalstep.ca/sites/default/files/case_study_interface.pdf

With the help of the Dream Team, all the attendees were brought onto the same wavelength with respect to understanding the company’s sustainability-related vision. The objective was to get the people unsettled and dissatisfied with the current situation, and to inspire them towards remedial action. 14

The conference had been innovatively designed as a parallel exercise in reducing the host venue’s environmental impact in real time. The exercise thus became an experiential metaphor for changing industrial practices around the world. The gathering served as an inspiring rallying call for all the stakeholders. It was also the first opportunity provided to the people outside the initial environmental task force for engaging with Ray’s vision of sustainability.

Interface now began to move strategically towards becoming a fully sustainable company. The Eco Dream Team played a key role in charting a route towards the summit of Mount Sustainability. Their eclectic collection of concepts and theories weaved the new paradigm together, and helped to structure a rudimentary road map along which Interface could progress. 

Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce and the concept of Whole System Thinking gave Interface the understanding of the context in which they were operating. Mission Zero (eliminating the company’s environmental footprint by 2020) provided the organization with a clear vision and a definition of success. The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) of the international non-profit organization The Natural Step (TNS) provided the new lens through which the company now viewed its business and strategic plans

The four Sustainability Principles of TNS were stationed at the top of Mount Sustainability. These acted as the compass for the journey up its slopes. Working backwards from its articulation of the desired future, Interface carefully planned the course that would lead the company & its people to the summit. 

Interface now defined the steps to be taken towards the production of zero impact floor coverings. Through a careful study of how problems are solved in nature, the company identified seven key areas where progress was needed. These were referred to as the Seven Fronts to be scaled in order to reach the summit of Mount Sustainability. These Fronts guided the development of Interface’s sustainability strategy as well as the direction of its efforts, the allocation of its resources, and measures of its success.

Interface also commenced the use of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) to help assess the environmental footprint of its products. These showed that 70% of the total environmental impact from carpet tiles arose from the raw materials that were deployed in their production.

The nylon threads employed for manufacturing the face of the carpet tiles were found to be the biggest environmental culprits. The company sought to mitigate their impact through: a) restricting the amount of threads used (dematerialization), b) searching for ways to recycle used threads into new ones, and c) searching for alternative thread materials. 

Interface chose to adopt an innovation-based strategy to pursue its vision of sustainability. A Global Sustainability Council along with a set of Regional Innovation Officers stimulated cross-functional development, and a rapid global scaling of ideas. This led to a frenzy of creative problem solving that yielded improvements – from redesigned pipelines to a study of the gecko lizard in order to figure out how to get the carpet to stick to the floor without the use of glue. 

Far from constraining the business, Interface found that its sustainability “lens” actually facilitated innovation and created new business opportunities. The company also became more proactive, and also better equipped to ride the waves of turbulence in its external environment.

However, the progress was perceived to be too slow to make a radical environmental impact. In 2006, the 7 Fronts guideline was replaced by the Mission Zeroprogram that called for the creation of the “first large-sized industrial firm with zero environmental footprint” by 2020.

In an industrial world where the majority of the products are “designed” to fail, Interface introduced a holistic business model that delivered long-lasting value, high performance, and transparency. Its circular economy business model was not only profitable, but also ensured a ‘license to exist’ in a sustainable world. This provided Interface with an edge over the competition.

Interface also helped to set the pace for others by being the first corporation to publish Corporate Sustainability reports. It received LEED and ISO 14001 certifications, and also accredited all of its products through the Environmental Product Declarations. 15Most importantly, Interface helped to bring about a perspective shift among its stakeholders. 

The Seven Fronts of Mount Sustainability

The seven fronts of Mount Sustainability collectively served as the pivot around which Interface’s reinvention journey was orchestrated. 2Their salient features were as follows:

Front One – Eliminate all forms of waste in every area of business 

Interface redefined waste as anything that was not essential for the performance of a product, and also did not add any value to the customer. This definition included waste in its traditional (off-quality, scrap) as well as non-traditional (overuse of materials, inventory losses, misdirected shipments, energy usage and inefficient processes) form.

There is the story of a facilities manager from a very large corporation who came to visit Interface for an assessment of the genuineness of its sustainability efforts. An Interface guide took him on a tour of the company’s Georgia factory. At one place, the visitor spotted stacks of taped-up “used” cartons that looked very old and battered. He sarcastically enquired from his host if that was the image that Interface wished to send out to the world. “Absolutely”, replied his guide. “We use these cardboard boxes over and over again, for as long as possible.” 16

To the visitor, those cartons instantly became the most beautiful boxes he had ever seen!

“Entropy” carpet tiles: Entropy was an Interface carpet tile design that imitated the random way in which a forest floor is carpeted by leaves. Being similar (but not identical) to one another, Entropy tiles permitted non-directional installation that was faster and less wasteful. The randomness of the pattern allowed for dye lots to be merged together. Individual tiles could thus be replaced, without disrupting the overall floor design. Entropy flooring resulted in as little as 1.5% waste. 15

Net-Works: In June 2012, Interface partnered with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Aquafil (its Italian yarn supplier) to address the environmental issue of discarded fishing nets that play havoc with marine life in some of the world’s poorest coastal areas and communities.Under the auspices of the “Net-Works” program, a community-based supply chain for discarded nylon fishing nets was established as a source of recycled materials for the manufacture of carpet tiles. This initiative has now been established in 35 communities in the Philippines and in Cameroon, with 100 tons of waste nets having been collected for recycling. 

This innovative approach is environmentally restorative (turns waste into a valuable resource and replenishes marine environments), socially inclusive (brings marginalized communities into a fair global supply chain) and commercially viable (supplies sustainable raw material).

Front Two – Eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles, and facilities

The second front was concerned with the elimination of molecular waste emissions. All emissions from the smokestacks as well as the effluent pipes were required to be innately harmless to natural systems. If not, they were to be rendered benign.

Toxic agents such as dyeing substances, CFCs, and other volatile chemicals were removed. The quality of what went out (including Greenhouse Gas emissions) and what stayed in (the air quality in the facilities) was monitored. In 2008, a laser-coding system was introduced. This eliminated the need to mark carpet tiles with solvent-based ink.

The dye-house manager at an Interface fabric facility in Maine felt that too many anti-static chemicals were being employed to dissipate static electricity from the fabric. He collaborated with his suppliers and managed to switch to a more benign anti-static agent. The use of acetic acid was eliminated entirely. Unnecessary materials (waste) were thus minimized; chemical pollutants (in the effluent pipes) were cut, and operating costs were slashed. All of this happened through a single, unified initiative.

TacTiles™:Inspired by bio-mimicry, TacTiles™ adhesive stickers were developed as a way to fix carpet tiles to the floor, without the need for synthetic glue. This translated into fewer Volatile Organic Compounds, both in the manufacturing process as well as the end product. 17

Since permanent adhesion was not required, tile replacement and reclamation became easier. Carpet installation with TacTiles™ was also faster, healthier, more durable and less wasteful.

Front Three – Operate facilities with 100% Renewable Energy

The objective of the third Front was to reduce the company’s total energy consumption, and to substitute fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy. The company expanded its renewable energy sources to include solar energy, biogas as well as reclaimed gas from landfills. Eight out of ten Interface production plants presently operate on 100% renewable electricity. 

The LaGrange City Biogas plant:In a beautiful illustration of public-private partnership, Interface teamed up with the city of LaGrange in Georgia to build a biogas plant that converted the waste methane stream from the city landfill site into a source of fuel for two of the boilers at the local Interface factory. 14

This provided a revenue stream of over $300,000 per year for the city, and also extended the life of its landfill site by an estimated 15 years. At the same time, burning methane instead of natural gas came out to be a 30% cheaper proposition for Interface. Further, with the elimination of the noxious smell of leaking methane, the site area became safer and more pleasant for the residents of the local community. It was truly a “win-win-win” proposition.

Photo-voltaic (Solar) arrays: In 2003, Interface took advantage of government subsidies in order to install 450 photo-voltaic (PV) panels at its factory in Southern California. The estimated cost was $1.2 million. At the time, this was the largest privately funded commercial solar array in the United States.

When channeled to run one of the factory’s carpet tufting machines, this electricity powered the production of one million square yards of carpet each year. Solar-MadeTMcarpet was thus born. It generated sales that greatly reduced the payback time of the PV panels.

Front Four – Redesign processes to facilitate the use of recovered / bio-based materials

The fourth Front was oriented towards imbuing Interface’s concept of design with a sense of purpose. Products were now required to be recycling-friendly, and manufactured either from homogeneous materials or with components that were amenable to easy separation.

Redesigned processes allowed the reclaimed resources to return as inputs to the “industrial” cycle (going back to the factories to create new carpets) or to the “natural” cycle (returned to the earth in a form that was not harmful to natural systems).

Re Entry 2.0: The introduction of Re-Entry 2.0 enabled the large-scale closure of the resource loop. This technology facilitated the reclamation of old carpets by separating the yarn from its backing.

Through a partnership with Aquafil, reclaimed materials were processed to yield yarn that was made from 100% non-virgin material. This was used to create carpet tile products such as Biosfera™ (which included fibre derived from salvaged fishing nets) and Fotosfera™ (that used bio-based nylon made from castor bean oil).

Front Five – Resource Efficient Transportation

Interface’s operations relied extensively upon the movement of people, products, and resources. This transportation resulted in extensive emissions of greenhouse gases. An LCA revealed that 8% of the carbon footprint of carpet tiles came from their shipping alone. The goal then was to make all kinds of transportation (including commuting) as efficient as possible.

Interface decided to localize its production, in alignment with the demands of local markets. 99% of the Interface products manufactured in Europe were delivered within the continent. Raw materials were preferably sourced from suppliers that were located close to the production sites.

Further, the employees were incentivized to join carpooling networks. They were also permitted to tele-commute, and work from home for up to 58 days an year.

Trees for Travel™: Begun in 1997, the Trees for Travel program facilitated the planting of trees to offset the air miles travelled by Interface business associates. In addition, the Cool Fuel™ and Cool CO2mmut™ programs were introduced to balance the carbon emissions of the Interface corporate fleet, and also to apply carbon offsets towards the daily commute of its employees.

Since 1997, Interface has planted over 118,000 trees through the Trees for Travel™ program. An additional 45,000 trees have also been planted since Cool CO2mmut™ began in 2002. 14

Smartway™:Smartway™ is a program introduced by the US Environmental Protection Agency that encouraged multi-modal transportation. The idea was to employ the most energy-efficient mode of transport for each part of the journey. When possible, shipments were routed through relatively low emission modes such as the railway or a barge instead of trucks or container ship.

By grouping its deliveries and reducing the number of empty trucks on the road through the Smartway™ program, Interface saved close to € 290,000 every year. 14

Front Six – Sensitization of all the stakeholders

A stakeholder was defined as anybody with an interest (or a stake) in what Interface did. This included the employees, customers, investors, suppliers, interior designers, and members of the business as well as the social community. Interface continually communicated its sustainability vision in order to sensitize its internal as well as external stakeholders. It also sought to widely share the lessons that it learned during its reinvention journey with other organizations.

An oft-repeated story relates to the CEO of a giant American food company who was visiting the Interface FLOR factory in Georgia. Her objective was to understand how Interface actually made money by shouldering its environmental responsibilities. She was initially quite skeptical about what a carpet manufacturer could teach them in this regard.

During a break in the conference proceedings, the lady went walking around the factory floor – and happened to lose her way. James Wisener, a forklift driver who was transporting a big roll of carpet, stopped to offer assistance. She asked him, “What do you do here?”

James said, “Ma’am, I come to work every day to help save the earth.”

Startled by his answer, she asked more questions. 

Finally, James said, “Ma’am, I don’t want to be rude. But, if I don’t get this roll of carpet off to the next process right now, our waste and emissions numbers are going to go up. I have to go.”

The CEO returned to the Conference Room, visibly different. She finally shared her story, saying that she had never before seen such a deep alignment of vision within an organization.

The only word she could use to describe the phenomenon was “love.”

FastForward 2020: FastForward 2020 was a learning program to equip the workforce with knowledge about sustainability, and constructively channelize the employee enthusiasm for Mission Zero™.

The first level of the program was mandatory for everyone at Interface. The Level 2 training went beyond sustainability in general, towards what it meant for specific roles and business areas. The Level 3 course was a strategic, two-day Critical Analysis course for senior management. Level 4 was designed to equip a set of spokespersons with media tools in order to develop them as Sustainability Ambassadors for the company.

Promoting Transparency: Environmental Product Declarations (EPD): Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) was a voluntary, LCA-based tool that communicated a factual account of the life cycle of a product, when analyzed across a series of environmental impact categories. It was standardized against the ISO 14025 and ISO 14040.

EPD was a third-party certification that created a credible basis for the comparison of similar products and systems, akin to the ingredient list on the back of packaged foods.

All Interface products were verified, and carried EPDs in due course.

Front Seven – Create new business models to support sustainability-based commerce

To get even close to achieving its Mission Zero, Interface needed to develop innovative business models to replace the fundamentally unsustainable ones that were hitherto dominant.

These new models were largely grounded in the provision of user-friendly services, instead of tangible products and materials.

Service Design: Evergreen, TileExchange, and TileCare: Launched in 1996, EverGreen™ was a leasing concept whereby the customers secured all the benefits of a carpet without actually owning one. Interface produced, installed, cleaned, maintained and replaced the carpeting when needed. This also ensured the proper disposal of the carpets. However, this leasing concept never developed beyond a few prototype contracts on account of unfavourable tax regulations.

TileExchange and TileCare services offered to treat or replace individual carpet tiles. Carpet life was extended through proper maintenance, for which Interface assumed responsibility. This also led to a reduction in the environmental impact as well as the client costs. At the same time, it ensured a constant stream of reclaimed material input into the ReEntry 2.0™ program. 14

Restorative Impact: Net Effect Collection™: Net Effect Collection™ represents carpet tiles that are partly made from the fishing nets collected through the Net-Works program. 18

A fine instance of commerce redesign, this product helped to generate a new source of income for the local community while simultaneously restoring the environment. It also had a positive impact on the biodiversity of the region at the same time. 

The Cultural Transformation

Interface is a showcase for a step-wise approach to radical change and innovation. The companywent through a process of cultural transformation in five distinct phases.

The initial “awakening” to the sustainability imperative, coupled with the definition of a vision, comprised the first stage of change at Interface. The second stage of “cocooning” was concerned with creating the roadmap for translating that vision into action. This mandated the formulation of goals and timelines, allocation of resource, and the development of metrics.

The third stage of “metamorphosis” was concerned with the arduous process of driving widespread change in systems and structures across the organization. This entailed the creative destruction of entrenched processes as well as mindsets, along with the provision of the necessary financial and human resources. Innovation was accelerated, even as tolerance was maintained for the associated risk of failure. Initiatives that supported organizational learning were also celebrated, so as to sustain and reinforce the organization’s commitment. 

The fourth stage of “emergence” was concerned with progressively engaging a larger number of people across the organization into the sustainability journey. Early successes stirred further innovation. Accurate metrics gave rise to positive and circular feedback loops of learning, action, measurement, and recognition. Sustainability began to get fully saturated into the company’s identity, and the associated beliefs and behaviors became ingrained into its DNA.

The final stage of “engagement” involved the process of influencing others. As the Interface organization became increasingly more committed to sustainability, the education and influencing of outsiders also became an important part of the change process. 

InterfaceRAISE was formed as a consulting subsidiary to help other organizations climb the learning curve and progress through the phases of the transformational journey. This advocacy role helped to build the company’s image, and also led to additional learning through the process of teaching others. 15

Interface’s belief systems also evolved simultaneously, from initial skepticism to a fuller understanding that graduated to belief and strengthened into commitment before culminating in passionate advocacy. This psychological progression worked in tandem with strategic decisions (vision, roadmap, alignment, integration, and influence). A deep shift in values and assumptions about “how we do things here” moved Interface to a new view of purpose and performance, within the larger context of environmental and social responsibility.

As the organization reconstructed its collective identity, the activities associated with the new perspective slowly became embedded in its culture. This paradigm shift produced technological innovations and sustainable business practices. It also sharpened a sense of pride among the people.

The second innings of Interface thus began with the recognition of the opportunities as well as the challenges of greening. The organization finally made sense of Ray’s vision of sustainability, and embraced it wholeheartedly. The company’s business model was reconfigured. The odyssey culminated into a collaborative endeavor towards the transmutation of the larger commercial ecosystem, so as to facilitate wider adoption of sustainable business practices.

The Engagement Drivers

The five key ingredients that helped Interface to successfully unfold its deeply engaging initiative towards full sustainability were: a) pioneering spirit, b) expansive vision, c) constructive approach, d) credible communication, and e) radical innovation. 14

Pioneering Spirit

In 1994, Interface was quick to recognize the rising level of ecological awareness among its customers as a paradigm shift. The company courageously stepped up to the challenges associated with being an early adopter. It engaged in bold experimentation and risk-taking towards the development of a new model of commerce and industry.

Making an early commitment to sustainability was crucial to Interface’s success. Collecting the “low-hanging” fruit helped to free up resources for investment into further exploration of sustainable processes and practices. The occasional failures too were embraced in a spirit of learning and development. The organization thus generated new internal capabilities as well as external opportunities, which eventually led to the development of competitive advantage.

Expansive Vision

Soon after Ray first brought his sustainability message to a group of Wall Street investors, an analyst called Interface to inform that one of its biggest investors was dumping the stock because Anderson clearly appeared to have gone “round the bend.” Ray later explained that it was part of his job as CEO to be “round the bend”, so he could see what was coming up next.

Mission Zero™ offered a remarkably different way for people to see the world. Stakeholders were proactively invited to imagine a future that was based on their positive core. This helped to inspire and align the people of Interface towards a shared vision that was never too distant, but always far enough to be challenging. Slowly but surely, people grasped the invitation for them to contribute towards something higher than mere profit maximization. This led to a progressive change in the mindset. People began to explore the existing as well as potential capabilities that could help actualize the vision.  

Mission Zero™ was also remarkably effective in engaging the caring and nurturing side of the people within Interface. Individuals brought more creativity and vitality to their mandates. They worked harder, because their emotional energy was channelized. The cultivation of participatory leadership also stimulated their contribution to the shared effort.

Constructive Approach

In order to progress towards a zero environmental impact, Interface inquired whether customers really needed to buy petroleum in the shape of a carpet. The answer that emerged was in the negative. Though this could have been perceived as a barrier for a modern carpet-manufacturing company, Interface chose to shift perspective and view this as an opportunity.

The focus then shifted to the role that carpets played in lives of customers: a) interior design, b) comfort underfoot, and c) noise control. This resulted in the creation of new products and services (such as Intercell™) that were more about “flooring”, rather than “carpets” per se.

Credible Communication

Interface always remained keen to learn how people viewed its sustainability paradigm. It maintained several platforms to capture feedback, which was then distilled and incorporated into action plans. Positive feedback amplified the resolve of the associates to continue with their “pilgrimage” up the slopes of Mount Sustainability.

The company remained committed to the maintenance of integrity and transparency in the communication of its progress toward Mission Zero™. The organization undertook third-party verification and certification of its sustainability-related claims, so as to maintain the integrity of its results. Transparent sharing of knowledge and insights was critical for Interface to progress towards its avowed aim of becoming restorative through the power of influence. 

The sincere and deep alignment between the company’s stated Mission Zero objectives and its actions on the ground helped Interface to gain credibility in the eyes of its stakeholders. 

Radical Innovation

Interface is deeply rooted in the belief that it is possible to find a better way to operate in any and every situation. This probably arose out of Ray’s training as an Industrial Engineer.

The organization demonstrated a phenomenal appetite for implementing radical, but practical, solutions to mundane as well unfamiliar problems. Humbly recognizing that not all smart people work in the same place, the company looked for guidance and inputs from outside.

Interface also invested in managerial capabilities that allowed it to conduct research, recognize opportunities, and revolutionize the carpet industry. Its culture of discovery created the conditions for research and development in product ideas as well as manufacturing processes. 

For instance, after a decade of experimentation, Interface was able to pioneer the ReEntry 2.0 program in 2007 – in partnership with Aquafil. This enabled the company to fully recycle any manufacturer’s carpets. It was a major improvement over the original ReEntry program introduced in 1996 that allowed for only partial recycling of the end-of-life carpets. 

Subsequently, the same partnership also helped to turn discarded fishing nets into brand new carpet tiles. Such inventiveness necessitated long development cycles, substantial financial investments, as well as risk-taking related to materials, business models, and technologies.

Also, Mother Nature embodies million of years of trial and error. Thus,research into how nature deals with challenges inspired creative solutions to design and many other kinds of problems. Contact with nature through sunlight, fresh air and living plants is also found to have a positive impact on human health. This conviction led to the development of many innovatively designed and patented products at Interface. The company reoriented its product designs to help create interior spaces that were restorative to the human spirit while being environmentally responsible too. It sought to create flooring that combined visual appeal and functional performance with bio-philic design.

The finest ideas actually came from the employees of the company, in the course of their regular work. After attending the company’s sustainability training program, many people were keen to align with what they had just learned. Interface provided them with a safe milieu in which to experiment with their ideas. In turn, they emerged with creative and innovative solutions.

The Challenges Faced

Interface started in 1973, through the good offices of an entrepreneur with a fine idea as well as a keen desire to follow a path of his own. The organization charted out a unique path for itself, and enthusiastically marched down the “road less travelled.” The journey has been deeply fulfilling for its people, and brought out the very best from the company and all its associates. 

Nevertheless, it was not always smooth sailing for Interface after it initiated the transition to sustainability. The process of developing and validating Interface’s sustainability-centric business model was marked by steep learning curves, as well as periodic setbacks.

The carpet industry faced recessionary conditions in 1998 (corporate preoccupation with the Y2K problem), 2001 (the dot-com bust) and 2008 (the sub-prime crisis). Interface was deeply affected too. Its revenues and profits swung along a sinusoidal trajectory. Survival itself would have been in peril, had it not been for the benefits that accrued from sustainability-led innovation.

An early “failed” approach to recycling involved the dissolution of whole carpet tiles in a chemical solution, in order to reclaim materials. Another process involved specialized, energy-intensive facilities in two countries. Both were discontinued because they were unduly expensive, and were eventually found to increase the company’s environmental footprint. However, Interface’s recycled backing technology emerged only after the tough lessons of these failures.

Some product innovations took forever before they saw the light of the day. Interface made a multi-million dollar investment in a technology that attempted to recycle nylon 6.6 that did not fructify. The company’s nylon supplier Aquafil took a full 13 years after the sustainability meeting at Hawaii before it emerged with 100 % recycled nylon carpet fibre. 

Solenium, a lightweight and composite floor covering with zero nylon content, did not click either. While its environmental footprint was low, the product failed due to its poor durability. 

The shift from carpet being purchased as a disposable product to being managed in a closed loop as a service was another big idea that proved to be well ahead of its time. The adverse tax laws around leasing carpet, combined with the challenge of changing how customers did business with Interface, forced the company to shelve its Evergreen Service Agreement.

Without an overwhelming belief in Ray’s vision, the economic downturns that Interface had to weather might have led the company to abandon sustainability. However, the organization never even entertained such thoughts. It had progressed past skepticism and experimentation towards actively employing the learning and insights in the service of its own transformation.

Awards and Recognition

Apart from being invited to serve as the co-chair of the President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and receiving 12 doctorates from various universities, Ray Anderson received a host of other sustainability-related accolades throughout his lifetime.

In 1996, Mikhail Gorbachev presented Ray with the Inaugural Millennium Award from Global Green while Ernst & Young named him as the Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2001, he received the George and Cynthia Mitchell International Prize for Sustainable Development. 19

In 2007, Ray Anderson received the International Quality of Life Award from Auburn University, and was named as one of Time’s Heroes of the Environment. Numerous awards also came his way in the year 2010. These included Design for Humanity Award of The American Society of Interior Designers, Lifetime Achievement Award from GreenLaw, the inaugural Global Sustainability Prize from the University of Kentucky, and the Sustainability Award from the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future.

In 2006, GlobeScan listed Interface #1 in the world for corporate sustainability. In 2012, the company received the UK Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development for the second time. 

The Daniel Hendrix Era (2011 – 2017)

In August 2011, Ray Anderson died of cancer. Daniel T. Hendrix, who had been the company’s CEO since 2001, was nominated to succeed him as the Chairman of Interface, Inc. 20

When Ray first articulated his environmental vision to Interface’s nascent Environmental Task Force, Dan Hendrix was the company’s CFO and a self-confessed skeptic of the entire concept. After witnessing the success of this endeavor in highly measurable terms over two decades, Dan became the most ardent champion of sustainability within the company.

Under Dan Hendrix’s leadership, creating miracles remained simply business as usual. The company progressed miraculously on several occasions in the past. As the steward of Anderson’s legacy, Danguided the organization into impossible frontiers.

In March 2017, Jay D. Gould took over as the President and CEO at Interface Inc. Dan remains as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the company.

Jay is wholeheartedly continuing Ray Anderson’s sustainability legacy. This includes the striking of a fine balance between being purpose driven and performance oriented.

Concluding Reflections

Interface’s quest is to redefine commerce, and kick-start the Next Industrial Revolution. However, its impressive cumulative accomplishments now appear to have reached a ‘plateau’. Looking at how far the company needs to travel before it can meet the 2020 deadline for Mission Zero, many people have begun to lament that it will take a miracle to achieve it.

However, the story of Interface Inc. is unique not only for its overwhelming success, but also because the assimilation of its radical vision was firmly rooted in a company with established operations. The company went through a transformational journey, and emerged as a world leader with an established reputation and a list of breakthrough accomplishments.

Ray Anderson was knowledgeable enough to put the basic sustainability principles on the table, pragmatic enough to begin approaching them step-by-step whilst improving bottom-line results, and was bold enough to tell the world. 14His practicality was his most impressive aspect. Ray would always inquire into what was possible to be done in the situation, before proceeding to do it systematically.

In the Church of Capitalism, Ray Anderson managed to be a faithful parishioner as well as a heretic!

References

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