Back in 1994, Interface – the world’s largest global manufacturer of modular flooring – became one of the first companies in the world to make a public commitment to sustainability, pledging to eliminate its impact on the environment – completely – by 2020.
It may not sound like big news today, but 20 years ago the thought of eliminating waste, toxic substances, energy and carbon – while at the same time creating innovative products inspired by Nature – represented a huge, bold leap into the unknown.
The company’s founder, Ray Anderson, likened the challenge of achieving this ‘Mission Zero’ to climbing a mountain higher than Everest. His vision for the carpet company to ‘cut the umbilical cord with oil’ — the main product traditionally used in nylon yarn – was considered nothing short of outrageous.
But due to an absolute commitment to its goals, Interface looks set to achieve many of its Mission Zero targets ahead of schedule. At the same time, many of the commitments that made Interface stand out in the ‘90s are now common practice for companies – including competitors – that are looking to streamline their operations and ‘green’ their processes.
It was in this context that Interface started building a framework for what to do next – and the company’s updated commitments to sustainability are as audacious today as Mission Zero was in the ‘90s.
Now Interface has pledged to reverse climate change.
The goal to achieve zero negative impact by 2020 was only ever part of Interface’s wider drive to become the first fully sustainable — and ultimately restorative — company. Rather than simply doing less harm, the goal is for Interface to have a positive impact in all areas.
Interface has spent years looking at what is really meant by ‘being restorative’ as a business – and in many ways the company has already moved beyond Mission Zero to consider what restorative initiatives would look like.
A perfect example is Net-Works, an initiative from Interface and the Zoological Society of London that transforms discarded fishing nets into yarn for carpet tiles in a way that empowers fishing communities in the Philippines and Cameroon. The Net-Works programme, which was a natural extension to Mission Zero and Ray Anderson’s legacy, started with a simple question: how can a carpet tile tackle poverty?
In 2012, Interface was already sourcing nylon yarn derived from waste fishing nets from commercial fishing fleets. At the same time Interface was starting to rethink its value chain and how it could start having a more positive impact, both environmentally and socially.
‘When Ray stood up in ‘94 and said, ‘We’re going to be a sustainable company’, sustainability wasn’t fashionable; we had no roadmap. It was outrageous to think that an organisation could get to a zero footprint, and we were ridiculed for it. People stood on the sideline and watched us, waiting for us to fail.
‘We know now what the biggest issues of our generation — and frankly, our children’s generation — are, and that’s climate change, poverty and inequality on a planetary scale, on a species scale. We are bold and brave enough, as we did in ‘94, to stand up there and say, if not us, who? And if not now, when?’
Interface’s vice president and cheif supply-chain officer
A series of workshops was convened to bring Interface together with its yarn supplier, marine biologists, development and sustainability experts. During these workshops, an opportunity was identified to source nets from artisanal fishing communities and turn waste into wealth in a way that would protect the marine environment.
Following a successful pilot, Net-Works has now been rolled out to 27 communities, with three collection hubs in the Philippines and one set up in Cameroon. To date, Net-Works has intercepted 100 tonnes of discarded nets, providing access to finance for over 500 families and a healthier marine environment for 55,000 people.
By 2020, the goal is for Net-Works to have provided access to finance for over 10,000 families, improved the marine environment for 1 million people and to have protected 1 billion square kilometres of our oceans.
The broader vision has always been for Interface to be the first company that, by its actions, shows the entire industrial world the true, multi-dimensional meaning of sustainability – for people, process, product, place and profits. The aim is not just for Interface reduce its contribution to climate change, but rather to work towards solving the climate crisis on a larger scale that extends beyond one industry or organisation.
The company’s next mission – Climate Take Back – contains an unsurprisingly bold commitment to bring carbon home and reverse climate change. As if that’s not enough, Interface will at the same time be creating supply chains that benefit all life, making ‘factories that are like forests’ and transforming dispersed materials into ‘products and goodness’.
Interface has pledged to lower greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to reduce, not just stabilise, atmospheric gases and reverse rising global temperatures. ‘We will demonstrate that we can reverse the impact of climate change by bringing carbon home’, says Jay Gould, Interface’s president and chief operating officer. ‘We want to be able to scale that to the point where it actually does reverse the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.’
The challenge of extracting carbon from the atmosphere – where it’s contributing to global warming – and bringing it ‘home’ to Earth – where it can be put to use – has had scientists scratching their heads for decades. Through Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge there’s even a $25 million prize on the table for anyone who works out a scalable and sustainable way of sucking carbon out of the air.
But Mission Zero sounded like a similarly lofty aspiration in the ‘90s – and Interface showed the rest of the world that even the most ambitious goals can be measured and managed like many other business tactics. Over the next year Interface will create metrics for each of the commitments outlined in Climate Take Back, and then define targets and timetables for achieving them.
And if any company can do it, it’s Interface.
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