tPurpose At Work: How Interface is Building a Climate Movement With Business Solutions
Brands lay the groundwork for global change by leading scalable movements. Working towards a common goal with collaborators across sectors strengthens their business. They earn goodwill, earned media and expand their business. They expand their network and position themselves as partners in building a better world.
A company doing an excellent job of leading such sustainable change is Interface. A global manufacturer of commercial flooring and the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet tile has actually developed a carbon negative flooring prototype, with the goal to launch its first go-to-market carbon negative carpet tile in 2020. I had the opportunity to speak with Jay Gould, President and CEO of Interface, about how he’s leveraging the company to spearhead a climate movement. Here’s the insights he shared.
Simon Mainwaring: When did you start to lead with purpose at Interface?
Jay Gould: When I joined the company almost five years ago, I was really focused on the economics of the business and not so much on sustainability. I was probably a bit of a climate change skeptic. Today, I’d call myself a climate optimist.
SM: What made you change your thinking?
JG: At the time, I didn’t understand all the science behind climate change. I’ll tell you the background story on why I joined Interface. In 2001, I was the Chief Innovation Officer of Coca-Cola. The CEO asked me to study some purpose-driven companies so that we might rediscover the magic of Coca-Cola. Ironically, the first company we studied was Interface. Ray Anderson, the founder, had a huge influence on my life because of what he taught us about what it takes to run a purpose-driven company. I went on and practiced that for the next 15 years.
Fast-forward to 2014. I got a call from a recruiter asking if I wanted a COO position in Atlanta. At first, I wasn’t interested. Then he told me it was Interface. It piqued my interest. I’d lost touch with the company.
After doing a bit of research I found out that Ray had died in 2011. The company just flatlined. No revenue growth and no earnings growth. So, I said, ‘What a great way to end my career. Join Interface and help get Ray’s company back on track.’
I brought Ray’s original “Eco Dream Team” back together again. Honestly, I was kind of looking for a pat on the back. Instead, I got a stern lecture from Paul Hawken, ecologist and entrepreneur.
He said, ‘Interface is the kind of company that takes on the world’s greatest challenges. I’m happy that you’re going to deliver on Mission Zero. But doing no harm is simply not enough. We have to move to positive action.’
I said, ‘What do you expect us to do? We’re a small company.’ And he said, ‘Reverse global warming.’ We went out to study the science and what we might be able to do. In the Summer of 2016, we launched this new sustainability mission that we call Climate Take Back.
SM: What was your process in leading that push?
JG: One of the things I had to unravel was the difference between a mission and a purpose. Mission Zero is a great mission. It’s time-bound. It’s quantitative, but it’s not the why behind the what. What we uncovered and how we articulated is that the why for Interface is to lead the industry to love the world.
SM: How was that statement received internally?
JG: With skepticism. People were having a hard time understanding what that meant, even though we have four very solid pillars of our approach on how to take the climate back.
1. Live Zero — Do business in ways that gives back whatever is taken from the Earth.
2. Love Carbon — Stop seeing carbon as the enemy, and start using it as a resource.
3. Let Nature Cool — Support our biosphere’s ability to regulate the climate.
4. Lead Industrial Re-revolution — Transform industry into a force for climate progress.
SM: How did you bridge from that language to the business itself? How did you take it to market?
JG: It’s amazing what can happen when you release human ingenuity to actually solve a problem.
One year after we launched Climate Take back, our R&D team came back with first-of-its-kind prototype carbon negative carpet tile. It sequesters more carbon than if it had not been manufactured in the first place.
We commercialized a carbon negative backing system in Europe to validate it could perform on the floor. Over the last few months, we’ve made some processing breakthroughs. Next year, our goal is to launch a carbon negative carpet tile around the world.
We always say that if we can do it, anyone can do it. And if anyone can do it, everyone should do it.
SM: Tell me about the sort of partnership approach. How you’re enlisting different stakeholders around this whole idea?
JG: In partnership with the Carbon Leadership Forum, there’s going to be a third-party verified carbon calculator released in November to easily evaluate carbon emissions of building materials. It’s called the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool.
Microsoft and Skanska, one of the world’s largest general contractor and construction companies, have worked with us and more than 30 other companies to build this tool. The idea is that architects and designers can understand the carbon footprint that they’re creating when they’re doing building construction or building remodeling.
Here’s a scary statistic. If you look over the next 40 years, we’re going to build a new New York City every month. That’s how much construction is planned as we urbanize cities all around the world.
Historically, we’ve talked about operational carbon. That is, the amount of energy a building needs to operate. Increasingly, there’s a focus on something called embodied carbon. Embodied carbon refers to the emissions associated with building material manufacturing and construction. It’s a huge shift in mindset.
SM: Talk to me about your revisioning of the role of carbon. It’s a dirty word in a lot of minds right now, but obviously you see it as a resource.
JG: We’re demonstrating that we can take carbon and store it into our products. I have committed on behalf of Interface that we will be carbon negative without purchasing any offsets by the year 2040.
SM: How are you sharing this intellectual property with competitors within your industry or forming coalitions of different companies?
JG: Our strategies and approach to sustainability are taught by the United Nations to companies around the world. We’ve been transparent about what we are trying to do and the strategies we’re deploying to achieve our goals. The great thing from our perspective is that this provides third-party verified information about a product’s actual carbon footprint.
SM: How do you rationalize purpose and profit internally?
JG: We don’t see purpose and profits as competing for resources. We say that Interface exists to create value for four key stakeholder groups: our customers, our employees, our shareowners and the environment.
We put metrics against each one. With our customers, it’s Net Promoter Scores. With our employees, we have benchmark culture surveys against other high-performing companies. With our shareowners, it’s about total shareowner return over time. And with the environment, we’ve got a variety of different metrics highlighted in our annual EcoMetrics, but are increasingly focused on carbon.
SM: What are some of the challenges or headwinds you’re facing right now?
JG: About 20 months ago, there was a bill coming to the California State Legislature to safeguard carpet recycling programs, and I sat on a trade association with the CEOs of other big flooring companies. It is called the Carpet and Rug Institute. When this information came about the piece of legislation, they said, ‘We’re going to hire a lobbyist and get the bill defeated because we don’t want this bill.’
I was disgusted. I resigned from the trade association, hired our own lobbyist, worked with Governor Brown and got the bill passed. And I am not a popular character in the flooring industry right now, but I can sleep at night.
It’s important to have a board of directors who understand that we’re here to create value for multiple stakeholders over time. That we have to balance investments and returns against each one of those stakeholder groups to always do the right thing for the business, at least over the medium term. It’s a timeframe discussion. Interface historically has demonstrated that we’re willing to think over not just years, but potentially decades, to create change.
SM: You’ve got to compete for people’s attention and engagement. What are you doing around storytelling?
JG: It’s a variety of different things from speaking engagements to communications with our customers to hosting carbon events. Because of our 25-year history around sustainability, it’s generally fairly easy for us to get audiences with chief sustainability officers of companies. Occasionally, we might hold a tribal gathering of climate optimists.
SM: Could you speak to how these shared values and common goals are playing into the customer products you’re doing?
JG: I think one of the best examples is Microsoft. You’ve probably read that Microsoft is spending big to replatform their Redmond, Washington, campus.
They’re knocking down something like a dozen buildings. We’ve been actively working with them. One of the things they love about us is that we want their used carpet back. We recycle it all through our ReEntry program. We take the top and cut it off. Then we send the nylon to be recycled into new nylon. We take the bottoms of the carpet and put it into the bottoms of the new carpet. We recycle 100 percent of our old product. They love that. It’s a key piece about their commitment to the circular economy.
SM: Interface is known for how you engage your team members in and around these initiatives. What’s been done lately to help them be a part of this movement?
JG: We activate the mission at every level of the organization. We recently sent out a storybook to everyone’s home about the unfolding journey of Interface. It illustrates how they can make a difference both at work and in their personal lives.
SM: Have you found that deepening your commitment to these issues internally has resonated with employees?
JG: We have been a purpose-driven company for 25 years. Our employee base expects it. I think they were concerned when we first went from Mission Zero to Climate Take Back. Now the momentum is building around that. We’re making investments into manufacturing to allow us to make carbon negative products, and people appreciate that.
The other thing we did was move our Atlanta headquarters from the suburbs where 100 percent of the people took private cars to the office. We believe the best building is the one you don’t build. We took an old scary building and converted it into a modern day workplace in midtown Atlanta, right across from a MARTA (subway) station. We now have one third of our headquarter-based employees taking mass transit every day, including myself.
SM: How do engage your suppliers?
JG: We’re part of an initiative called Manufacture 2030. We’re putting metrics in place to look at all of our supplier’s carbon footprints. We’re responsible for the cradle-to-cradle approach and how we think about our footprint.
SM: How do collaborations with companies impact the movement?
JG: Key customers like Gensler, a global design firm, or Microsoft, Salesforce, and Dell are the ones helping us change the dialogue. Because we’re at the leading edge, we will force other companies to change as well. We will change the industry to be carbon sensitive.
Simon Mainwaring: Is there any advice you’d give to CEOs working to grow their purpose and profits?
Jay Gould: You have to earn the right to pursue your sense of purpose. Earning the right means delivering top financial performance. You must have access to capital to grow and to reinvest against your purpose.