Strategies for change - 1. Interface

Posted: 18 July 2001

Author: Charlie Pye-Smith

Carpeting the world green Looking around the world for examples of corporations which take their social and environmental responsibilities seriously, the Interface carpet company stands out. Charlie Pye-Smith reports.

In 1994, Ray Anderson, chief executive of Interface, was invited by his staff to give a keynote address at an environmental meeting. Until then he had not given theenvironment much thought, his attitude being that Interface should simply comply with existing environmental law. By chance someone sent him a copy of Paul Hawkens' The Ecology of Commerce. "I read it, and it changed my life," he recalls. "It was an epiphany. I wasn't halfway through it before the vision I sought became clear, along with a powerful sense of urgency to do something."

Since then Interface, a worldwide carpet company with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, has undergone some profound changes and Ray Anderson has been peddling his views on greening business with evangelical fervour. Each year he gives some 200 talks on the subject, and he now chairs President Clinton's Council for Sustainable Development. He has become the darling of the environmental movement ­ he was warmly received recently at a Greenpeace conference ­ but can a major user of petro-chemicals really become a restorative company, as Anderson hopes?

"If successful," he says, "we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets, recycling old petro-chemicals into new materials, and converting sunlight into energy. There will be zero scrap going into landfills and zero emissions into the biosphere. Literally, our company will grow by cleaning up the world, not by polluting or degrading it. We'll be doing well by doing good. That's the vision. Is it a dream?" Steve MartinSteve Martin, environmental adviser at Interface.© Charlie Pye-Smith The florid language of Interface's Sustainability Report, from which this call to green arms is taken, is in a sharp contrast to the plain-speaking pragmatism of Interface's environmental adviser, Steve Martin. Martin is based at Shelf Mills in Yorkshire and his task is to turn the rhetoric into a reality. He himself began work on the shop floor in the 1970s when the mill was owned by the Illingworth family. "There was always a tradition of frugality," he recalls. "But in the past we were frugal for economic reasons. Now we¹re frugal for environmental reasons as well."

Tackling waste

Tackling waste has been a major preoccupation for Martin and his colleagues. Over a four-year period Interface's Yorkshire mills have reduced their landfill needs by 44 per cent. Virtually everything that can be recycled is recycled. Each year over 150 tonnes of Shelf's waste yarn is carded back into nylon, then incorporated into new carpets at a nearby mill in Heckmondwike. In 1997, over 290,000 cardboard cones, weighing roughly 21 tonnes, were sent to landfill. Now the company uses plastic cones which can be used up to 20 times. Admittedly these are made from petro-chemicals, but then there will always be some hard choices to make for companies setting out on the path towards greater sustainability. All the paper used in the pleating process at Shelf is recycled, as is most of the cardboard. Even the dust produced in the manufacturing process is saved and transformed into a packing material, and waste plastic is made into a hard-wearing floor tile.

Eliminating waste also means eliminating emissions and, since 1994, Interface has got rid of 48 of its 287 smoke stacks around the world. At Shelf the volatile organic compounds from the pleating machine used to go into the atmosphere. Now they are distilled into a liquid which is used to make motorway cones.

Martin stresses that while some of the improvements depend on sophisticated technological change, often it is the simple things which matter most. "Trying to achieve sustainability isn't rocket science," he says, and he has plenty of examples to prove it. By monitoring water intake ­ something the mill had never done before ­ Interface discovered that it was leaking huge quantities into the ground. The broken pipes have now been sealed, saving both water and money. The use of intelligent lighting is cutting electricity bills, and a variety of simple measures have helped reduce heat loss in many of Interface's factories. Energy expert Amory Lovins, a member of Anderson's 'Eco Dream Team', has been among those whose advice has helped the company to cut its energy requirements and its waste output.

Earning a bonus

Interface's 7800 workers ­ or associates as the management prefers to call them ­ have played a key role in changing the way the company behaves. "The vision has to come from the top," says Martin, "but the real savings come when you involve everyone in the business."

Roughly 400 new projects aimed at improving the eco-efficiency of the business have been instituted in the past four years, and many of these have come from the shop floor. The old hierarchical system of labour management has been largely replaced by a more democratic approach. Intriguingly, many of the older staff, preferring the old system, have moved on, and the workforce is now younger and by all accounts more adventurous in its thinking. Environmental improvements have so far helped Interface to save over £80 million, which has been good not just for the company but also the workforce who receive an annual bonus related to environmental achievement.

In practical terms, Interface's achievement has been considerable. Not only has the company cut its waste and emissions, it has also reduced the amount of raw materials used per unit of output by around 20 per cent. "We've got to the stage when we've picked most of the low-hanging fruit," says Martin. "From now on our progress is going to be harder."

The company is a significant consumer of natural resources, especially in the form of petro-chemicals, and it remains to be seen whether Anderson's dream of being a restorative company is achievable. The last of his seven "ambition fronts" ­ the first being to eliminate waste ­ involves "redesigning commerce". Essentially this means providing services rather than products. For example, some utilities in the United States now sell heat and light to customers rather than electricity. This means that it is in their commercial best interests to produce as much heat and light as possible with from least amount of energy, thus encouraging greater eco-efficiency. In the case of Interface, redesigning commerce means leasing carpets rather than selling carpets, the idea being that at the end of the carpets useful life, the company will reclaim and recycle them. This scheme is already operating in the US; Martin hopes the British mills will be doing the same before too long.

It would be easy for the sceptic to make fun of Anderson's messianic tone and the grandiloquent turns of phrase ­ at times he sounds like a Southern Baptist preacher ­ but there's no denying that Interface is a very different company now from the one it was before Anderson's conversion. Take a look at a turn of the century photograph of Shelf and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The first industrial revolution created a black, Lowryesque world of belching chimneys. Today we are witnessing the birth of a more benign industrial revolution, one without filth and waste, and Interface is helping to lead the way.

Charlie Pye-Smith is a freelance journalist with a special interest in environment and development issues.