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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Shaw on Flooring That’s Good for More Than the Feet

The floor beneath our feet can mean so little, or so much. We caught up with Susan Farris, VP of Sustainability Corporate Communications, to learn more about how Shaw’s focus on sustainability is evolving alongside the market.

The floor beneath our feet can mean so little, or so much. While flooring can be overlooked, it can also set the tone of the room, shaping our experience from an aesthetic and health perspective. Carpets and laminates, for example, can contain chemicals and plastics such as PVC — both of which can be harmful to human health and make flooring difficult to recycle. According to the EPA, billions of pounds of flooring enter the US waste stream every year. Hardwood flooring can have its downsides, too — it can raise questions about deforestation, and can be covered with paints or sealants that contain formaldehyde or VOCs. All of this makes flooring a good place to target both health and environmental concerns.

Prompted initially by demands from the commercial flooring market, Shaw has invested significant time and energy into examining and improving the material health and impact of its flooring products. It has achieved Cradle to Cradle™ Certification for nearly 90 percent of the products it manufactures — meaning the company has optimized material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness in their making.

We caught up with Susan Farris, VP of Sustainability Corporate Communications and longtime Shaw employee, to learn more about how the company’s focus on sustainability is evolving alongside the market.

How has the concept of sustainability changed over time at Shaw, what has driven this change, and how has the company adapted?

Shaw began as a carpet manufacturer in Northwest Georgia, rising out of roots in tufted bedspread industry — an industry started by the women of Northwest Georgia as a way to support their livelihood. We are now a global company that is not only the world's largest carpet manufacturer, but the largest engineered hardwood manufacturer in the US, one of the largest modular resilient manufacturers in the US; and we provide tile, stone, laminate and synthetic turf to residential and commercial markets worldwide.

Our business today is unrecognizable from its beginnings more than 50 years ago. Not surprisingly, our focus on sustainability has evolved, as well. We have made steady progress against goals we set for 2030 focused on water, energy, carbon, waste and product sustainability. While all of those things are still critically important, in recent years we have seen a growing shift of focus on the impact of products and operations on people.

We spend an astounding 90 percent of our time indoors, and as we've become an indoor species, we're increasingly focused on the spaces and materials we surround ourselves with. Noise, daylight, temperature all impact how we feel and what our experience is in a space; so do the ingredients that go into products that we all buy, including flooring.

At Shaw, we have been focused on material health in alignment with Cradle to Cradle principles for 20 years. What began with our commercial customers is now becoming important for key segments of our residential customers. The concept of healthy home and related attributes such as moisture, sound, comfort and cleanability resonates at a tangible, personal level in a way that planetary issues have not when it comes to flooring selection. We are focused on sustaining HUMAN ability — putting people at the heart of sustainability. As the market has shifted, we’re continuously evolving our products and working to find the best ways to simply convey our messages to an increasingly diverse array of audiences.

How do you make sure your sustainability department’s structure is able to meet the company and the market’s needs?

We are in the midst of constant transformation — just like most companies. However, our industry and the sustainability landscape has shifted more significantly than usual over the past three to five years. Seeing these changes, Shaw recently took even more concerted efforts to better understand and connect our sustainability priorities to those of our customers and other stakeholders.

Our first step was to survey key internal stakeholders — our associates — to determine their sustainability priorities and what support they most needed from the corporate sustainability team to be effective. That led us to a new articulation of why corporate sustainability exists at Shaw: to leverage market insights and technical expertise to inform, influence and support business decisions. By overtly communicating that to our internal partners and tying activities that may have once been seen as compliance efforts or technical expertise more closely to innovation and competitive advantage shifted expectations of the department.

With that foundation, it was natural to then align our sustainability subject matter experts to the main areas of our business — commercial and residential. Those customers and influencers have very different needs; and by dedicating experts to understanding that landscape, we are better able to bring market insights and support business needs.

How do you help your team continue to evolve and innovate amidst a rapidly changing landscape?

Clearly defining the team’s mission and why we exist was instrumental. Another key ingredient was the explicit acknowledgement of the need for our team to be agile — to stay true to who Shaw is as a company, but also adapt to changing market expectations, as well as how technology and access to information shape what we do. If we let the constant change paralyze us, we will not be successful.

By recognizing that our plans will frequently be adapted, it mitigates potential individual concern that efforts weren’t successful because they weren’t executed exactly as originally planned. It has to be seen as the norm to perpetually evolve tactics while still driving toward our fundamental goals.

The corporate sustainability team is committed to engaging in the outside world — through deepened partnerships with industry and sustainability groups as well as building strong relationships that are sustainability focused with our customers and partners. By keeping a pulse on technical and scientific advancements, new tools in the marketplace, emerging influencer priorities, regulatory shifts, and other external forces, we can better anticipate the future and identify the trends that we need to focus on for ongoing innovation.

How do you lead a change when all the requirements aren't known; and at the same time, you don’t have the luxury to hit the brakes on the ongoing, necessary work?

The reality is that the world is always changing; and so, forging ahead when we don’t have all the information, and making the best decision possible, is how we all operate. An example is our commitment to the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products Program. Almost 90 percent of the products that we manufacture are Cradle to Cradle Certified. Cradle to Cradle focuses on safe materials, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship, and social fairness — and Cradle to Cradle Certified products are verified to include only chemicals and components that are safe for people and the planet.

We have to renew that certification every two years — so, there is ongoing work on our product portfolio to examine product ingredients, production and how the product functions out in the world. Compliance efforts obviously can’t stop, but we must also continue to bring value to our customers. It’s a constant triage and prioritization, as we scrutinize what will bring the most value to our organization — creating a competitive advantage or mitigating risk.

Did you face internal resistance? If so, how did you overcome it?

Throughout the process of transforming and clarifying the role that corporate sustainability plays within Shaw, we focused on engagement. We wanted to fully understand what our associates and the company need and expect from our team; and at the same time, bring them along with us as we redefined our role.

I think that engagement throughout the process helped break down some anticipated resistance. Over the years, we evolved our team from one that many may have seen [to have a] technical, compliance role within the company — to one that is adding business value, working alongside our main business units to achieve their business goals. As with any change management effort, it requires frequent communication to avoid misunderstanding and misaligned expectations.