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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How Interface Is Setting Out to Change Industry with ‘Climate Take Back’

Carpet might not seem like a major player in the climate change fight, but the process of making it actually is quite impactful on the environment. Most carpets are synthetic — nylon, polyester, acrylic — all of which are petroleum-based products. Throw in other petroleum-based adhesives and materials used to back the synthetic fibers, chemical dyes to repel stains and fire, and a lack of reliable recycling methods, and you’ve got a recipe for some unsustainable practices.

Carpet might not seem like a major player in the climate change fight, but the process of making it actually is quite impactful on the environment. Most carpets are synthetic — nylon, polyester, acrylic — all of which are petroleum-based products. Throw in other petroleum-based adhesives and materials used to back the synthetic fibers, chemical dyes to repel stains and fire, and a lack of reliable recycling methods, and you’ve got a recipe for some unsustainable practices.

Recognizing the negative environmental impacts surrounding carpet, in 1994 Interface founder Ray Anderson set forth a new company vision: “Be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits - and in doing so, become restorative through the power of influence.”

Given the world’s myriad social and environmental challenges, “do no harm” just isn’t good enough. If we hope to realize the ambitious climate goals established by the Paris Agreement, address rising global equality and reverse generations of environmental decline, brands are realizing that they must step up their corporate sustainability game to having a net positive impact.

Interface recently unveiled its newest sustainability mission, called Climate Take Back.

To learn more about the initiative and see how the company continues to advance sustainability in the carpet industry, we spoke with Erin Meezan, Interface's VP of Sustainability.

What is Climate Take Back and why is Interface making this its next sustainability mission?

It means taking back control of our climate. It's a new mission for our company and we will be building out our plans to achieve it, as well as metrics to track our progress. We want others to join and build out their plans, too. It is focused on climate change — and about a conversation about reversing climate change, not just reducing our carbon emissions.

We believe that with four big shifts — Live Zero, Love Carbon, Let Nature Cool, and Lead Industrial Re-revolution — we can create a climate fit for life. And we can build a movement where other companies feel optimistic about our collective ability to act to reverse climate change.

At Interface, we will be developing our plans related to these four key areas. We’ll also identify solutions and possibilities for other companies and institutions to join and take action.

Why? If business and industry are responsible for altering the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere, then the same institutions can lead us to a healthier climate. We want to lead that effort, especially since climate change is the biggest threat to humanity, the planet and our institutions.

For Interface, it’s a natural evolution from our Mission Zero focus. Twenty-two years ago we adopted a transformative vision for our carpet tile company to have no negative impacts by 2020. With less than four years to go, we are close to achieving those goals. Simultaneously, we’ve evolved our thinking and now know that we need to go beyond doing less harm to creating positive impacts.

A few years ago, we began piloting new projects with positive impacts in mind. For example, our Net-Works program allows us to work with developing-world coastal communities to harvest discarded nylon fishing nets to bring more recycled nylon into our supply chain. Or our ‘Factories as Forests’ initiative focuses on adopting innovative standards to manage our factory campuses consistent with ecological models. We are literally trying to run our factories like forests and provide the same sort of benefits that nature does – carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, habitat – and at the same time, providing high-performance spaces for our employees to work.

We were driven to set an innovative and inspirational new mission, Climate Take Back, because we are close to achieving our original goals, combined with this shift in thinking toward positive impacts. With the passion and support of our purpose-driven team at Interface, we’re ready to take on humanity’s biggest challenge and try to define a path to have positive impacts.

What is the Mission Zero goal, and how is Interface working to achieve it?

Our Mission Zero has been called one of the most ambitious sustainability plans in history. It is our promise to eliminate any negative impact our company may have on the environment by the year 2020. We took a company based on oil and turned it into one that makes sustainable products from renewable materials with renewable energy.

Here’s where we are with our goals:

  • 50% of all the materials we use are from recycled or bio-based sources — We’re committed to making that 100% by 2020.
  • 84% use of renewable energy around the world, with 96% in North America and 95% in EMEA.
  • 87% reduction in water use; 91% reduction in waste to landfill.
  • And we’ve cut greenhouse gas emissions per product by 92% in the last 22 years, with a 78% reduction in absolute emissions since 1995.

We’re not at zero yet, but we’re getting close, proving it’s possible and showing that it has been good for business.

Can you comment on each focus area, what the goal is, and what Interface is doing specifically to achieve them?

It’s still early, but we are exploring solutions and will develop appropriate goals and metrics in these four key areas over time. We expect to make more specific commitments as we evolve our thinking and identify solutions. Here’s an overview of how we’re thinking about the four focus areas today:

Live Zero: Only take what can be replaced

Live Zero means living or doing business in a way that takes only what we need, the very definition of sustainability. This is the way we continue to incorporate our Mission Zero goals as we move forward. We’ve done a lot to reduce our impacts, but we need to do more and it needs to become business as usual.

Love Carbon: See carbon as a resource and use it as a building block

It’s time to treat carbon as a resource, using carbon as a building block and thinking of it as a way to build and create.

We’ll be applying this idea at Interface by looking at innovative raw materials we can use in our products made from waste carbon or that sequester carbon. We will also explore ideas like using our carpet tiles themselves to sequester carbon.

Love Carbon takes us a step further on our Mission Zero journey. We’re not talking about cutting emissions; we’re talking about viewing carbon as a resource, not a pollutant.

Let Nature Cool: Restore nature’s proven ability to cool, mimicking nature’s strategies

Humanity can help nature do its job by imitating nature in the way we do ours and providing the system conditions to help nature work without interference, without all of the pollution and emissions that are usually human by-products.

We redesigned Interface 22 years ago by asking how nature would design a business. Now we’re looking to nature again to understand how to improve our business operations and factories, by designing them so they store and clean water, absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, enhance soil fertility and support the nutrient cycle.

Nature can fix this, if we give it the chance and find ways to restore nature’s ability to cool the planet.

Lead Industrial Re-revolution: Create new business models to drive change

Though industry has brought fantastic benefits to humankind, there are downsides to its “take-make-waste” approach. We need industry that works with nature, not against it, and that comes from rethinking how we run our businesses. We want to change the approach to “waste-make-retake.” To move from take-make-waste to waste-make-retake requires drastic changes. We need to evolve a supply chain that does no harm to a supply chain that enriches many.

We see this taking shape by building on nature as a model, moving away from take-make-waste systems to circular systems where waste is designed out, resources are recycled and reused and materials are reused at end of first life.

Our Net-Works initiative is a perfect example of a relatively small first step, but one that at scale could drive significant global change. Net-Works empowers developing-world coastal communities and replenishes the ocean by turning marine waste into opportunity. People are incentivized to collect and sell discarded fishing nets that cause pollution and harm marine life. They are also provided access to finance, entry to a fair global supply chain, and options for diversified livelihoods.

Since 2012, 27 communities across the Philippines and Cameroon have gathered almost 100 tons of nets to be recycled into carpet tile – enough to stretch twice around the world. Over 600 families have been given access to finance through community banks, and 55,000 people have benefitted from a healthier environment. With Net-Works, people no longer see nets as waste; instead, they represent opportunity, income, empowerment, and connectedness.

What metrics is Interface using to measure success with its Mission Zero goal?

When we set out to achieve Mission Zero initially, Ray Anderson said that the level of change we need in the business would be like climbing Mt. Everest – and the idea of Mt. Sustainability was born. We used this metaphor to communicate the enormity of change we needed in the business to become sustainable.

We then needed a framework to apply this to our business and we began by asking – “how would nature run a company?” Insights from this process informed the development of our framework — the seven fronts — and their associated metrics: Eliminate waste, benign emissions, renewable energy, closing the loop, resource-efficient transportation, sensitizing stakeholders, redesign commerce.

Many of our metrics were focused on transforming the business to reduce our negative impacts, but a few were about creating engagement and designing new ideas and business strategies to become sustainable.

When we started our journey, we measured where we were on these seven fronts, how much energy we used, how much waste we generated – and we set baselines from which to measure our progress. Most of our baselines date to 1996.

As we evolved our thinking and understood more about our environmental impacts, we defined additional measurements to assess whether or not our products were becoming more sustainable, too. Additional key measurements now include the amount of recycled or biobased materials we use in our products and the carbon footprint of our products, etc.

Moving forward, we are aiming to accelerate our progress on our Mission Zero goals by working with our suppliers under a ‘Suppliers To Zero’ program that endeavors to mirror many of our Mission Zero achievements in our supplier’s operations.