Interface Chairman
Ray C. Anderson on Sustainable Design

Interface Chairman Ray C. Anderson has worked tirelessly to promote environmental sustainability among corporations. Here he tells Peter Lawrence, chairman of Corporate Design Foundation, how Interface uses design to eliminate emissions and waste.

 

I've heard you described as the ‘greenest CEO in America.' You are certainly one of the most passionate, vocal and proactive. Were you always like this?

No. When I founded Interface in 1973, I just wanted to survive. As a company, we certainly complied with the law and obeyed regulations, but beyond that I never gave a thought to what we were doing to the earth. Traditionally, carpet manufacturing has been a petroleum-based business. Back then, our factories, as others in our industry, spewed out hundreds of gallons of toxic wastewater and more than 900 different pollutants.

What changed your thinking on sustainability?

In the mid-1990s, customers were asking our sales force about our environmental stance. Our research division organized an environmental task force, and asked me to give the kickoff speech and share my environmental vision. Frankly, I didn't have a vision, except comply, comply, comply. Through pure serendipity, someone sent me a copy of Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce. It changed my life. Hawken's premise was that industrialists are largely responsible for the destruction of the earth and are the only ones powerful enough to stop it. It was an epiphanal moment. Though we were very successful in a conventional sense, I was dumbfounded by the impact of the industrial system on the environment. A new definition of success flooded my consciousness. I was a plunderer of the earth, and this was not a legacy that I wanted to leave behind.

What does sustainability mean to Interface?

It means operating in such a way that we take from the earth only that which is naturally and rapidly renewable-not another fresh drop of oil-and do zero harm to the biosphere.

What did you tell your task force back in 1994?

I gave them a mission to convert Interface to
a restorative enterprise. We evolved that into a strategy for ‘Climbing Mount Sustainability'-reduce, reuse, reclaim, recycle (later we added redesign), adopt best business practices and then advance and share them, develop sustainable technologies and invest in them when it makes economic sense, and challenge our suppliers to follow our lead.

What kind of progress have you made
over the last 14 years?

We're quite a way up the mountain on all fronts. From our 1996 baseline, we have reduced waste by about 52%. That has generated in real dollars, $372 million of cost avoidance. We have reduced our net greenhouse gases in absolute tonnage by 88%. Water usage worldwide in our company is down 79%. We have been able to close 47% of our smokestacks with process changes and 81% of our effluent pipes. We have recaptured used product at the end of its
first life to the tune of 127 million pounds of stuff that we have brought back to our factories to close the loop on material flow. Six of our 11 factories are now run on 100% renewable electricity.

Some people would ask, ‘What did such
reductions cost?'

The answer is: It did not cost; it paid. Our cost is down, not up. Waste elimination alone is dispelling the myth that there's a trade-off between the environment and the economy. Since we started the program, Interface also has grown by two-thirds in sales, and profits have doubled. We expanded and survived a four-year-long industry-wide recession when our primary market actually shrank 36%.

Has your sustainability emphasis changed the way Interface designs its products?

Completely. To eliminate waste, we saw that we had to design our products in a different way. Today the average product in our factory contains 16% less nylon than 10 years ago. All perform extremely well, and the offset created upstream in our suppliers' factories is equivalent to 10 years of nega- (not used) energy. This dematerializing through conscious design reaches back into the supply chain all the way to the wellhead.

Another example is that for years our industry has wet-printed patterns onto a plain-colored carpet base-a water-and energy-intensive process that also requires chemical treatment of wash water before release into the waterways. Our engineers discovered that the tufting machine that forms the pile face of the carpet has the potential to precisely place tufts of yarn of selected colors to form quite intricate patterns. So we abandoned wet printing.
The result is a family of patented inventions giving us an edge in the marketplace.

One of your best-selling tile carpets is Entropy®. Could you tell me how that came about?

One day our head designer, David Oakey, challenged his design team to go into the forest and see how nature would design a floor covering. He told them, don't come back with leaf designs; come back with nature's design principles. The team spent a day literally looking at the forest floor, the ground, the streambeds, and finally it dawned on them, ‘There are no two things alike here.' No two sticks, no two stones, no two leaves, anything. Yet there's a pleasant orderliness in this chaos. When they came back, they designed a carpet tile such that no two tiles were identical-similar but different. Entropy has sold faster than any other Interface product. Today there are some 82 products designed on Entropy principles, representing over 40% of our carpet tile sales.

What's the environmental advantage?

There is very little off-qualities in production; inspectors cannot find defects among this
deliberate imperfection of no two alike. There is also very little waste in the installation. Installers can install quickly because they don't have to worry about getting the tile running in the same direction, the more random the better. There is also very little scrap because even the piece tiles can find a place in installation. The user can actually replace an individual tile that gets damaged by a spill, or whatever, and the new tile won't stick out like a sore thumb. Users can even rotate tiles to equalize wear.

How did Interface come up with the world's first totally glue-free carpet tile?

We took this on because glue is a source of volatile organic compounds (VOC) that contribute to poor indoor air quality. In discussions about how to get rid of glue in the installation of carpet tiles, we wrestled with
van der Waals' molecular attraction question: How does a gecko cling upside down to the ceiling? Our designers didn't find that answer but they did come up with a revolutionary 2.5"x2.5" releasable adhesive tape for the four corners of the backside of each tile. When the tiles are connected laterally, gravity keeps the tiles securely on the floor and completely eliminates the need for glue in the installation. Getting rid of the glue has reduced environmental impact by over 90%.

Were there financial savings as well?

Absolutely. Not only for us but for the installers who can quickly place and move the tiles without worrying about the glue underneath.

Interface's sustainability initiatives extend to everything from recyclable swatch samples to a tufting method that reduces the amount of nylon in every carpet. Now there is "Climate Neutral, Cool Carpet." Can you talk about that?

This is a development aimed at customers who are particularly concerned about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It enables customers to buy a Cool CarpetTM product that we will certify as climate neutral throughout its life cycle. We do that by offsetting, or balancing, net emissions from wellhead through reclamation-raw material acquisition, manufacturing, transport, use and maintenance, disposal or recycling. Since 2003, we have sold more than 52 million square yards of climate neutral carpet.

Do you consider Interface a sustainable company today?

No. There's not a sustainable company or sustainable product anywhere on earth yet, but we're working on it and making terrific progress.

What is your hope and vision for the future?

We look forward to the day when our factories have no smokestacks and no effluents. If successful, we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets, recycling old petrochemicals 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..