Interface Inc.’s Strategy for Sustainability
Watch Interface CEO Ray Anderson present his vision for Interface, Inc.:
Interface, Inc. is the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet tile. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, the global company manufactures the kind of carpet that millions of commercial buildings of all types have on their floors. Carpet manufacturing is a historically dirty business. Not only is commercial carpet a petroleum-based product, the manufacturing process is water-intensive, and carpet squares are installed using toxic glue. Because this carpet is aimed at the commercial market (think schools, libraries, malls, office buildings), it usually does not have a long life span. Malls and schools regularly remove and replace carpet after just a few years because of fading and wear from daily foot traffic. This puts millions of square feet of old carpet into landfills annually.
In 1994, Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, was put on the spot when he was asked what his company was doing to be sustainable. He realized that the answer to the question was, unfortunately, “not much.” Anderson realized that in order to improve the company’s sustainability performance, Interface was going to have to radically reimagine every part of their business.
Unlike what many CEOs in his position might have done, Anderson decided to do just that. He gave Interface a new vision, which he called Mission Zero. The objective was to reduce Interface’s environmental impact to zero by the year 2020. To accomplish this vision, the company looked at every aspect of its operations and developed what it called the “Seven Fronts of Sustainability”:
Front #1—Eliminate Waste: Eliminate all forms of waste in every area of the business.
Front #2—Benign Emissions: Eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles, and facilities.
Front #3—Renewable Energy: Operate facilities with 100% renewable energy.
Front #4—Closing the Loop: Redesign processes and products to close the technical loop using recycled and biobased materials.
Front #5—Efficient Transportation: Transport people and products efficiently to eliminate waste and emissions.
Front #6—Sensitizing Stakeholders: Create a culture that uses sustainability principles to improve the lives and livelihoods of all of our stakeholders.
Front #7—Redesign Commerce: Create a new business model that demonstrates and supports the value of sustainability-based commerce.
To achieve the seven sustainability goals, Interface needed to redesign their operations from start to finish and even reconsider what constituted the start and finish for their products. Anderson empowered employees and invested in research to develop new ways to design, manufacture, and install carpet tiles. Interface also reimagined how its clients would use and dispose of carpet tiles.
Changing the strategy of a successful company is always risky, but Anderson felt he had to take the risk. Developing action plans for such a radical change meant that every step of the business had to be rethought, and Interface is on the way to achieving Ray Anderson’s vision. “Since January 2014, Interface's plants in Holland and Northern Ireland have been using around 90% less carbon and 95% less water than in 1996, with no waste going to landfill. Its plant in Scherpenzeel, Netherlands, has hit two of its zero targets.”
How has Interface made these changes? In addition to changing the way they thought about their product’s life cycle, Interface has implemented performance measures to track its progress and it has incentivized employees to be part of the company’s successful redesign. Connecting company actions to real cost savings was a key part of Ray Anderson’s vision. “Over time, programs that linked bonuses for employees at all company levels to reductions in waste started to put meat on the bones of Ray's ‘business case for sustainability.’” Interface’s costs have dropped as they have learned to use fewer resources to manufacture their products, and the cost savings have improved profitability even as Interface continues to invest in Mission Zero.
- What reaction do you think employees had when Ray Anderson announced he wanted to change the company’s mission?
- How would you turn the Seven Fronts of Sustainability into SMART goals?
- How is tying rewards to improved sustainability performance a form of strategic control?
Sources: Interface Inc. company website: http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Company.aspx and sustainability site: http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Sustainability.aspx ; Thorpe, Lorna (2014). “Interface is a carpet-tile revolutionary.” The Guardian Sustainable Business. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainability-case-studies-interface-carpet-tile-revolutionary; Davis, Mikhail (2014). “Radical Industrialists: 20 years later, Interface looks back on Ray Anderson's legacy.” Greenbiz.com. https://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/09/03/20-years-later-interface-looks-back-ray-andersons-legacy.