Purpose At Work: How Interface Transforms Sustainability To Rewrite Our Future

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Global struggles necessitate collaborative leadership. Whether its beating COVID-19, alleviating poverty or mitigating climate change, the challenges we face are too great for any one person or organization. That said, innovators that pave the path to success will be rewarded with earned media, goodwill and market share.

A company leading by example to combat climate change is Interface. The carpet maker recently released the world’s first carbon negative carpet tile without carbon offsets. “A combination of low footprint manufacturing, more recycled content and bio materials make it possible,” Erin Meezan, Interface’s Chief Sustainability Officer tells We First.

While this manufacturing feat is a monumental accomplishment for the company, it presents opportunities and challenges. How can Interface scale impact? Is there a way to recuperate capital invested in R&D, while sharing insights with others in the industry? What’s the best way to tell the story in a way that catalyzes purchases?

Interface’s innovation and leadership presents learning opportunities for brands looking to Lead With We.

Risks and rewards of impact:

For Interface, sustainability isn’t related to a single product. The company applies a sustainability lens throughout its supply chain. While the environmental benefits are undeniable, what are the incentives from a business perspective? Is investing in this sort of large scale sustainability effort profitable?

“We think it’s going to drive revenue,” Interface’s Chief Sustainability Officer says. “We’re going to steal business away from competitors. We’re also able to steal great salespeople because they’d rather sell flooring with a purpose than just sell flooring.”

Interface’s purposeful accomplishments also authenticate its deep commitment to climate action, “which helps with investors,” she says.

In addition to the organizational benefits, it fosters goodwill amongst Interface’s clients. To celebrate customers’ emissions reductions, the company developed the Carbon Neutral Floors Program. Interface issues a framed certificate, which clients like Facebook, Apple and Starbucks showcase in their facilities. They also include results in sustainability reports, Erin says.

By acting on impact, Interface is able attract and retain talent, investors and customers. The company founded by sustainability pioneer Ray Anderson is also innovating with its rubber business, incorporating the learnings from its work with carpets.

Leverage your IP and advance your industry:

While the results justify the investment for Interface’s leadership, there are substantial associated costs. With game changing technology like the carbon negative carpet tile, there is a balance between trying to earn money while catalyzing mass deployment of sustainable products.

“We’re debating how to do that,” Meezan says. “We’ve got to get back the five years and millions of dollars invested. At the same time, we remain transparent by issuing environmental product declarations and explaining the broad pathway, without sharing the direct formula.”

Interface is also exploring a licensing model in which they would share their proprietary formula and processes. This would allow other businesses to scale sustainability efforts and provide a revenue stream for Interface.

Another initiative Interface is participating in is the Materials Carbon Action Network. The Network is a coalition of companies including Gensler, CertainTeed, Armstrong and others, committed to decarbonizing the building industry. “We create educational sessions and materials so that people working in the built environment space realize sustainability initiatives are not limited to one company,” Erin says. “This is a movement.”

Interface also engages with organizations like LEED and the Green Building Council to create market standards around green construction products. “We’re trying to create market pull and define a leadership position,” Meezan says.

Leverage policy to scale purpose and profits:

Joining cultural conversations and supporting policies that mandate emissions reductions is another way to move the building industry forward while gaining competitive advantage.

“We don’t have time just to rely on awareness,” Meezan says. To move the needle faster, the sustainable floor producer supports policies like the Buy Clean California Act, which sets “maximum acceptable Global Warming Potential” limits for building materials. “Currently, it only applies to construction materials. We are working with a sponsor in California to amend it to include interiors products,” the Chief Sustainability Officer says. “Any policy that gets end-user businesses to consider carbon footprint in their purchasing specifications is super attractive to us because it drives demand.”

Environmental policies also have large implications on the entire industry. “If the state of California starts saying, ‘I’m not going to buy a carpet tile that is not carbon neutral or better,’ that’ll quickly push our competitors to change,” Meezan says.

Share your sustainability story:

One way Interface tells its sustainability story in a way that drives sales is via tools. They partnered with Skanska and Microsoft to create the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) through the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum. “It crowd sources all of the carbon footprint information on the construction and interiors materials that go into buildings and shows architects and designers by ranking low to high footprint products.” The free resource makes it easy to find sustainable construction materials and that helps create market demand.

“There’s a lot of latent desire for big end users like Google and Microsoft to buy low carbon products because it has an impact on their carbon goals,” Erin says.

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Over the last five years, more and more customers are asking for carbon neutral or carbon negative products. “There’s increased interest in closed loop, recycled materials and how that can decarbonize products,” Meezan says. “Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown, had an impact. Carbon 180 helps connect investors and manufacturers with green products. There is also more media interest and coverage around the issues and innovations.”

By leading the industry with sustainability, Interface is able to gain earned media. A great example is the Beyond Zero film. Filmmaker Nathan Havey was interested in what happened after Ray Anderson died, the Climate Take Back and “what you have to do to change minds,” Meezan says.

Interface did not fund the project. Instead, Havey Pro Cinema was attracted by Anderson’s vision and the work to back it up. The film has received awards from acclaimed forums like the Boston Film Festival, the Denver Film Festival and the Montreal Independent Film Festival.

Ultimately, by walking the talk when it comes to purpose and providing resources for your customers to do the same, you can tell compelling stories and scale the reach of your communications initiatives.

The challenge of changing industry behavior:

While Interface’s new products help businesses minimize their environmental footprint, there are still millions of buildings with outdated materials that need to be retooled. One of the ways Interface acts on sustainability is by reclaiming old products from customers to recycle and make new products. “The place we struggle the most is getting products back from customers,” Meezan says.

An innovative way the company is working on getting more companies to give back old products is by offering a leasing program, which was actually conceived by Anderson 20 years ago. “We don’t want our customers to own the products. That way, at the end of the product life cycle, they come back to us,” Erin explains.

3 lessons from Interface on how to amplify your purpose:

Each company has a unique sustainability journey. That said, we can learn from the successes and obstacles of eco-leaders like Interface. Here are three lessons Meezan learned from Ray Anderson on how to scale impact in your organization and beyond.

1. Inspire with vision: “Ray asked people to come along on the journey and inspired them to believe it was possible.”

2. Invite participation: “Ray gave employees permission to get involved in it. No matter what level of the company you are in, you’re allowed to start tinkering and figure this out. That was when innovation really exploded for us.”

3. Educate senior leadership: “Ray had so much humility to realize that he didn’t know how to do this sustainably retrofit his company. He created the eco-dream team to teach senior leaders about the scientific pathway for reversing emission. He also illustrated the role companies have in that and the associated business opportunities.”

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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