For Ray Anderson, serving his customer has always been a life-and-death matter. When he was just starting Interface, which today is one of the world’s largest interior furnishings companies, everything was ready to go — factory built, raw materials bought, employees hired, and product in the marketplace — but there was one problem that day in August 1974. “We had not one order on the books,” remembers Anderson. “It gives you a whiff of mortality. If you don’t get the next order, you die, and the source of the next order is a customer.”
Interface (www.interfaceinc.com), based in Atlanta and trading as IFSIA, now has annual net sales of over $1 billion. But, 20 years after it was founded, the company discovered that growing sales was not enough. In 1994 the company’s acute awareness of the customer’s importance meant its ears were open when its customers started asking. “What’s your company doing for the environment?” Interface’s response was to listen. “But,” says Anderson. “the fact is we weren’t doing anything.”
So the company did what large organizations often do in the face of hard-to-answer questions. It created a task force. What’s more, when customers asked Anderson to launch the task force with an environmental vision, he had to admit: “I didn’t have one.” But, he says, providence brought “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawkens to his desk just at that moment. “It was a spear in my chest, an epiphanal, eye-opening awakening.”
He understood all at once that the company he had created, which was like a third child, was a “plunderer of the earth.” Concerned about Interface’s future, he says, “I had to ask what it would grow up to be.” His decision was that it ought to be the first industrial company on earth which would be truly sustainable — taking nothing from the earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable, and doing no harm to the biosphere. Beyond that, he wanted Interface to become a restorative company, putting back more than it took out, doing good for the earth and also influencing other companies to do so.
Five years ago he relinquished his CEO role and took on the task of revolutionizing his company’s approach to the environment. It has been a happy surprise that the steps taken thus far have been “amazingly good for business.” Not only are costs down — thereby, he says, exposing the false choice between the environment and the economy — but his staff have been “galvanized by this higher, shared purpose” and “the good will of customers has embraced us. We have seen a direct top-line benefit.”
As part of his crusade to enlist more recruits, Anderson gives a breakfast seminar, “Mid-Course Correction,” on Friday, September 15, at 8 a.m. at Fairleigh-Dickinson University’s Lenfell Hall in
Madison. Cost: $35. Register
at www.fdu.edu/ise or call
Anderson grew up in West Point, Georgia, the son of a postmaster and a one-time schoolteacher. As a boy he listened to Georgia Tech football games on the radio on his back steps, and was good enough to win a football scholarship to Georgia Tech, graduating in 1956 with a degree in industrial engineering.
Although his mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering fellows teased him that the initials i.e. (industrial engineer) really meant “imaginary engineer,” what he learned has served him well in his current venture: a smattering of the hard stuff, a good deal of business, but mostly skill in organizing industry for efficiency and productivity.
The biggest culprit in the earth’s poisoned environment, greenhouse gases, and global warming, says Anderson, is the industrial system, of which we are all a part. He cites in particular the “take, make, waste linear system that digs up the earth and produces a product that ends up in a landfill.” A tossed away carpet, for example, will stay in a landfill for at least 20,000 years before all its nylon is broken down and returned to the earth.
Anderson uses the metaphor of “Mount Sustainability” to represent the journey toward sustainability. Industry needs to climb all of this mountain’s seven faces and emerge at the top, which is zero environmental footprint by:
Eliminating the concept of waste. Interface is more than halfway to its goals. By reducing waste it has generated $300 million in cost avoidance, which has paid for the rest of the company’s environmental initiative.
On average, says Anderson, 97 percent of the total throughput of “stuff” taken from the earth to produce a product of lasting value ends up as waste. Manufacturing a laptop computer requires that 40,000 pounds of stuff is processed and distilled. While a laptop is used for three or four years, other products — cans of soda or salad containers, for example — take similar resources and pass through our hands in mere moments.
Making changes to reduce waste requires thinking that opens up a company to new ideas. One idea Anderson suggests is going into the dumpster to see what’s there. “It’s amazing what you find in a dumpster that has been thrown away,” he says. “But there is no ‘away.’ According to the laws of conservation of matter, it will not cease to exist; it will only disperse.
“Elimination of waste is very profitable,” continues Anderson. Twelve years ago, Interface estimated that 10 percent of its sales were going down the drain in waste. Even though Interface has made good progress in reducing waste, Anderson says the company still has $70 million of waste that can be eliminated.
Reducing emissions from smokestacks into the air and from effluent pipes into the sewers. “Whatever comes into the building will go out as product, waste, emissions, or effluent,” says Anderson. To eliminate materials that should be “left under the earth’s crust where nature put it, you have to work upstream on suppliers. You have to understand the toxicity of every component of every product and set out to find a substitute.”
Interface has lost some suppliers with this approach, but has had a very positive response by and large and even gained new suppliers.
Reducing energy usage and switching to renewable energy. Interface’s first step was to reduce energy use to an irreducible minimum, concentrating first on energy-intensive and high-impact processes. The challenge is that alternative fuels are expensive, and companies can’t afford them unless they begin by drastically reducing energy use. “In 12 months,” says Anderson, “we reduced greenhouse gases 56 percent in absolute tonnage.”
Part of the company’s energy reduction came by way of an offset created through a project harnessing methane from a landfill, done in cooperation with the city of Lagrange, Georgia. “It meant a huge offset,” Anderson says. “Methane is 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, so we have reduced our global warming effect by 23 to 1.” The technical advance was very easy, he says, simply “pumps and pipes,” and the city has been vocal in spreading the word to other municipalities.
The good news is that while reducing greenhouse gases, sales have grown 58 percent, thereby reducing carbon intensity, or carbon produced per dollar in sales, by 72 percent. But further improvements require the creation of technologies that don’t yet exist.
Closing the loop in material flows by total recycling. The existing approach to materials has been “take, make, waste,” but the goal is closed-loop recycling, which in the carpeting industry would mean that the nylon face and polymeric backing from old carpet would be returned and used as the basis for new carpet.
Accomplishing this goal not only requires big technical changes, but also requires mastering the reverse logistics of getting the used material back. This would require a collection system that is a mirror-image of the distribution system, and would require a different mindset in everyone from carpet sellers, to installers, to consumers.
Moving people and products in a climate-neutral way. We need more efficient vehicles, says Anderson, “and until the automotive industry solves that one, we’re stuck.” But Interface has taken the initiative by planning shipments for maximum efficiency and by offsetting vehicle emissions by planting trees.
The company works with American Forests (www.americanforests.org), supporting its reforestation projects in a program dubbed “Trees for Travel.” To offset the carbon created by each 1,500 passenger miles of air travel, the company plants one tree. So far, Interface has planted 62,000 trees for 135 million passenger miles.
Interface has also created a special credit card with British Petroleum for everyone driving an auto owned or leased by the company to offset the mileage its people drive in their work. “Four cents a gallon goes to buy trees,” Anderson says, which completely offsets the per gallon emissions of his employees’ car trips.
Creating a culture shift by educating the community. Interface calls this face of the mountain the “sensitivity hookup.” Its goal is to change the thinking in the company’s suppliers, customers, and employees, and in the communities where Interface operates.
Central questions are: “How do we create an ecosystem where cooperation among parties replaces confrontation? How do we create partnerships that work for the good of the earth?” Interface has taken steps like getting its suppliers to increase recycled content and supporting community recycling programs.
One evocative path the company is taking is called biomimicry, which uses nature as teacher, as inspiration, and as mentor, and asking: “How would nature do this?” One day Interface sent its design people into the woods to spend a day looking at the forest floor and at stream beds. “It dawned on them,” says Anderson, “that no two sticks, stones, or leaves are alike, yet there is a pleasant orderliness in the chaos.”
The result of that day was a new floor covering, Entropy (disorder), which has since risen to the top of the company’s list of best-selling products. This modular carpet has no two tiles with the same pattern. “When installed, there is a pleasant orderliness and aesthetics,” says Anderson.
Entrophy’s production inspectors can’t find any tiles that are off quality. There is little waste in its production, and the tiles can be installed more quickly than most tiles, and users can replace an individual tile without the “sore thumb effect” that occurs if every single tile is the same. And Entropy also turns out to be easy to manufacture.
Reinventing commerce. Anderson says that the company has made the least progress here, because this phase requires the other six to be working. What he imagines for the future is a service economy, where everyone is selling a service instead of a product.
For carpets this would mean selling aspects of the product — like texture, design, static electricity control, comfort underfoot, and acoustical value — while retaining ownership in the “stuff,” the substance of the product, which it would continually re-cycle. The company would deliver these services for the life of the building, with a lease would be “evergreen.”
Business still has a lot to do to achieve sustainability, but Anderson believes that government can accelerate the process.by developing a tax policy which would shift taxes from the “good things taxed today to the bad things not taxed” — for example, reducing income taxes but increasing gasoline taxes. “The government’s taxation policy is its single most important power and the most misused of all,” says Anderson. “It is not enlightened, but is full of perverse subsidies.”
Through its regulatory power, the government could prod the slow movers to do what they ought to do. “As paradigms are shifting, it will be the ‘never movers’ who will be prodded by the stick of the regulatory system,” he says.
Anderson believes the government should be requiring life-cycle assessments that codify the environmental impacts of producing every product it buys. Finally, the government can bring people together to accomplish tasks. And it has recognition power. “By recognizing worthwhile acts, through awards, it creates huge pride,” says Anderson.
Anderson served as co-chairman of the President’ Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and has received many awards during his environmental quest. He also serves on the boards of several environmental organizations, including the Natural Step, USA; the Georgia Conservancy; Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper; Ida Cason Callaway Foundation; Rocky Mountain Institute; and the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development.
With generally optimistic hopes for the future, he couches all predictions with a warning. “If we don’t pull our act together on global warming, we will leave our grandchildren with an impoverished world.”
But for now Anderson is hopeful. He believes we will see a vast shift to environmental responsibility. “The power is with the people,” he says. “When the people speak with one voice, any business person is going to listen and politicians will too.”