Twenty two years ago, Ray Anderson - founder of Interface, one of the world's largest manufacturers of carpet tiles - had something of an epiphany.
A customer had for the first time asked the firm what it was doing for the environment - and he realised he didn't have an answer. "No one had ever asked us that before, and we were not doing anything, in fact we were doing everything the wrong way," Erin Meezan, Interface's global vice-president of sustainability, tells BusinessGreen.
Mission Zero promised Interface would have no negative impact on the environment by the year 2020, and ultimately that it would become a restorative company. As the vision developed however, ambitious concrete goals were set out for the company: reducing waste, greenhouse gas emissions and net water use to zero, using 100 per cent renewable energy, using only recycled or bio-based materials.
With just four years to go, the Atlanta-based firm is now confident it will meet most of the goals. It has already reduced its global waste to landfill by 91 per cent since 1996, while 84 per cent of its energy now comes from renewable sources. In Europe it has come even further, reaching 100 per cent renewables, with overall energy use also reduced by 50 per cent.
"What looked impossible 22 years ago, it is very quickly becoming a reality at Interface. And maybe just as important, Interface during that period of time become an inspiration to the larger industrial community," says Rob Boogaard, Interface's chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Interface has long been recognised as an early adopter of a radical approach to boosting its sustainability performance, and this continues to this day - just last week the firm was again listed as one of the world's most sustainable corporations in the annual Sustainability Leaders survey from green consultancies GlobeScan and SustainAbility, alongside household names such as Unilever, Patagonia, IKEA and Tesla.
However, while the firm has continued to make progress on its goals in recent years, it has taken something of a backseat in the public debate on sustainability, largely due to Anderson's death in 2011. Now, it appears ready to change that and start publicly making the case for greener business models once more. Following a year-long conversation with employees and stakeholders on how the firm should raise the sustainability bar higher still, earlier this month Interface launched a new mission, which it refers to as Climate Take Back.
The aim is to set a new marker for what it means to be a sustainable business today, and one of the key tenets is that Interface should not just focus on its own practices, but also try to challenge others to get involved.
"What was really gratifying and scary at the same time was to hear a really strong unified voice in our company saying the next step for Interface has to be way bigger than just our company mission," says Meezan. "We need to set an aspirational mission that really addresses what's going on in the world. How can we as a sustainable business who has made all this progress, how can we even think about the future of the next mission without addressing [global climate change]?"
Meezan summarises this in a motto: "We can't be a sustainable business in an unsustainable world".
Climate Take Back
The first goal of the new strategy is to simply continue towards the company's Mission Zero goals. Now dubbed Live Zero, updated targets include boosting the use of recycled or bio-based material from the current 50 per cent share up to 100 per cent by 2020.
Another central idea is the "Love Carbon" initiative - a name that uses provocative language on purpose, says Meezan. "It's this idea of signalling that we have to stop thinking about carbon as just a problem," she says. "We need to look at it as an opportunity or a building block."
In essence, this means capturing carbon dioxide - whether from industrial processes or the atmosphere - to make products. Interface is currently investigating whether harvested carbon could be used to make yarn, fillers or backing materials. "We're talking to raw materials suppliers now who are making everything from bioplastics to potential fillers, that have actual real products right now," says Meezan. "It's beyond experimental."
Interface has set an internal challenge for its innovation team to start testing these products for use in an upcoming product launch, which it hopes could happen as soon as 2017.
Factories as forests
Interface also wants to become more in sync with the way nature regulates itself, harnessing natural mechanisms as a model for sustainable business practice.
"Over the last year Interface has been experimenting with this idea in partnership with Biomimicry 3.8, which is a group of biologists and innovators who look at natural models as a way to solve innovation challenges around their business," reveals Meezan. "What we're really trying to do is design our factory locations so they function like a high performing ecosystem."
The pilot project, called Factory of the Forest, attempts to use ecosystems services as a way to build a new factory standard. Interface has identified high-performing ecosystems close to two of its factories - one in the US, one in Australia - and sent biologists to measure how they function in terms of carbon sequestration, nutrient cycles, water filtration etc. "We're saying could that be a standard for our local factory in the same place? What if we aspired to sequester as much carbon, provide as much habitat, cycle as many nutrients as this high performing local ecosystem?" says Meezan.
In the case of carbon, for example, this could take the form of new emission capturing asphalt technologies, different land management practices, or green roofs among other measures - though with the project still in its early stages there is a long way to go before Interface can be sure what the "forest factories" would look like. However, Meezan is confident that there are plenty of exciting options out there for companies looking to take a genuinely new approach to sustainability. "I definitely think there's a lot more need for optimism, there's a lot more need to talk about solutions," she says. "There are lots of existing technologies we're looking at that might actually be integrated in a factory."
Leading the industrial re-revolution
Interface is also challenging itself on how to create a more sustainable business model - particularly with regards to the impacts of its supply chain.
The company has already launched several strategies in recent years to make its supply chain more environmentally restorative and socially inclusive. For example, the Net-Works project, launched in 2012 in partnership with the Zoological Society of London, uses recycled fishing nets to produce nylon for carpets - generating an additional source of income for impoverished communities while also helping to protect the environment from discarded nets which can harm sea life and corals. Interface hopes to roll out more of these types of projects in an effort to reorganise and redefine the supply chain business model.
However, it is the yarn that goes into Interface's carpets which has by far the biggest environmental impact - it accounts for over 80 per cent of the environmental impacts associated with making a carpet tile.
Interface has begun to tackle this by challenging suppliers to use more recycled materials. The strategy is yielding results - one yarn supplier developed a 100 per cent recycled yarn, which Interface has started using more of, in turn encouraging other suppliers to produce a similar product. Interface plans to roll out more of these kinds of strategies, with future models potentially even seeing Interface co-investing with its suppliers.
Changing the conversation
Climate Take Back is still in its initial stages - Interface plans to develop deeper goals and commitments as the mission develops - but the company says it is keen to create a framework for conversation with other businesses, as well as mobilise employees and customers and driving innovation across its network.
"I think the biggest lesson learned for us is: 22 years ago we adopted a really bold goal - we stood up and said before anyone was saying it, we want to be a company that shows other companies what sustainability looks like," says Meezan.
"Setting a big aspirational goal I think really set the tone for Interface to do really great things," she continues. "If we had set an incremental goal I don't think it would have inspired our employees, I don't think it would have driven nearly as much innovation as we've seen in the company. So just by merely putting this mission out there and talking about it and challenging other companies, the hope is that we will start a very different conversation."
Interface has also reintroduced its "Dream Team" - a collection of experts with the joint goal of making Interface a leader of sustainability. Led by Jay Gould, president and chief operating officer of Interface, the team plans to hold a series of conferences in Europe, Asia and the US later this year to encourage like-minded companies - customers, suppliers and stakeholders - to join the mission.
"We're saying that zero cannot be the best that Interface can do," says Boogaard. "Earth and humanity requires more, and so we really need to reach for what's beyond the horizon. So that's what the new mission is about - it's just as bold and risky as Mission Zero was 22 years ago. But we're doing it with a whole lot more confidence because in the last 22 years we've been able to accomplish a lot, and mobilise some convening power to have others follow suit and participate."
Interface is full of bold ideas and its executives plainly have a genuine passion to take things further - it's telling that Boogaard has a sound knowledge and keen interest in so many early stage clean tech and green business ideas despite the word "sustainability" not coming near his official role title. However, it remains to be seen whether a business world that is still too often focused on incremental reductions in carbon emissions and water use is ready for such a radical scale-up of ambition.
"It's so large that even the idea of talking externally about reversing climate change as a goal makes us uncomfortable," admits Meezan. "It's scary and it's a huge idea, but it's based on this thinking that unless we name what we want, unless we really talk about the hard issue, we could waste a lot of time as a company focusing on things that aren't that important."
Perhaps in another 22 years Interface will have again shown the world how sustainability is really done.