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Walking the Talk
An Early Adopter’s Guide to Sustainability:
5 Lessons Learned

Companies that challenge the idea of business-as-usual can set the pace of innovation for their peers despite the risk of failure. And you might just unlock a new way of doing business and see ripple effects for years to come.

As we celebrate 50 years since our founding in 1973, Interface is still considered a fairly young company. Many of our employees worked alongside our founder, Ray Anderson. Some were even around to witness Ray’s famous “spear in the chest” moment that launched our sustainability journey as we know it today — ultimately, reshaping our entire identity.

While Interface set out to revolutionize the flooring industry through the carpet tile, the story of our 50 years in business goes deeper — showing how sustainability and business performance can exist in harmony.

We believe businesses have the best resources, innovation and expertise to pioneer sustainability. As an early adopter of this mentality, we have the triumphs and the lessons to show for it. In reflection of our 50 years, we have collected those learnings — both to inform our future and to share with companies on or at the onset of a similar journey.

1. It’s about a journey, not a final destination.

As we have celebrated hitting key milestones on our journey, we have internalized the notion that there is no finish line for improvement. Pursuing more innovative and sustainable ways of doing business should be a constant.

While this thinking can be seen throughout our history, one notable example is when we introduced our Climate Take Back™ ambition — which aims to reverse global warming — before we achieved the success of our first sustainability moonshot, Mission Zero® (aimed at having zero negative impact on the environment).

To achieve maximum impact, we knew there was a need to go further — to shift from a business model of doing no harm to one that actively does good — and to juggle multiple ambitious goals at the same time.

We challenge our colleagues to do the same — identifying new opportunities along your existing journey, and always setting your sights on how to go further than you first imagined.

2. If the framework doesn’t exist, build it yourself.

One important question that Ray Anderson asked in the mid-‘90s after introducing Mission Zero was how to make the business case for sustainability. Sustainability was new to everyone, not just us — meaning we didn’t have a tried-and-true framework to follow.

So, we took a chance — with the conviction that trying was non-negotiable — and set out to build that framework ourselves. As we started to reduce our energy use and waste, our profits rose and our products improved. We became a living example that sustainability and a thriving business are not mutually exclusive.

Ray became a full-time salesman for sustainability internally and externally; and Dan Hendrix, former CEO and current Board Chairman, built and proved the business case. Together, they transformed Interface — from how we designed and manufactured products to how our leadership team was structured.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions you don’t can’t yet answer or set goals you don’t know how to achieve. Companies that challenge the idea of business-as-usual can set the pace of innovation for their peers despite the risk of failure. And you might just unlock a new way of doing business and get to witness the ripple effects for years to come.

3. Look outside of your four walls.

Some of our best ideas and innovations have come from a willingness to look outside of our metaphorical four walls and beyond our own industry for ways to improve our processes and manufacturing.

Historically, we cut tiles out of a tufted roll with die cutters — four tiles at a time. We realized we could improve cutting, save time and reduce waste by using ultrasonic cutters — a technology used to create airplane wing parts.

As a flooring manufacturing company, it wasn’t intuitive to look for insights from the aviation industry; but doing so led to one of our most important innovations to date. Adopting this technology helped reduce our cutting waste by 80 percent. What companies or industries could you be looking to that you may not be today?

4. And while you’re at it, invest in cross-industry partnerships.

In 2008, we introduced our Net-Works™ program — which explored using old fishing nets for recycled nylon — in partnership with Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London. Through the program, Aquafil successfully began producing ECONYL® regenerated nylon — made from 100 percent waste that would otherwise pollute our seas. It performs the same as virgin nylon and can be recycled, recreated and remolded infinitely.

Today, ECONYL is a sought-after responsible solution for well-known fashion and interiors brands — including being featured in most area rugs from our premium design brand, FLOR.

If we are to reach and make progress toward sustainability goals and create a climate fit for life, we must invest in collaboration. Through partnerships — even those that may seem unlikely — business can develop effective solutions that peers and competitors can leverage as a better way of operating.

5. Harness the passion of your people. All of them.

To make meaningful progress toward your goals, you need everyone. Engage your employees and give them the power to help identify and apply solutions for solving your company’s biggest challenges.

In the late ‘90s, after introducing Mission Zero, our leadership team realized reducing waste and our use of water and energy was going to be a huge undertaking. As a result, we introduced our QUEST program — which asked every company employee at all levels to help.

QUEST helped us engrain sustainability into every aspect of our business as teams set aggressive targets and began sharing knowledge and best practices globally. It enabled us to reduce our manufacturing waste costs significantly and, over time, improve financial performance.

The solutions we’ve created would not have been possible without the talent and passion of all Interfacers. We have proven the value in empowering all our people to get in the business of creating solutions — and, even better, it creates a culture everyone can feel good about.

Now, what?

While we take a moment to reflect on our last 50 years as a company, we recognize there is no time for rest — only deeper engagement.

Our sights are set on continuing to raise the bar for ourselves, for industry and for the world. How will we do it? We’ll lean on the same principles that drove us these last five decades — challenging the status quo, learning from our peers, partnering well, harnessing the power of our people, and identifying new challenges along the way.

We’ll continue to invest in transparency as an organization, sharing takeaways and insights with our peers as they work to achieve their bold missions. We’ll tell you when we win — and even when we fail — so that we can all learn together.

Thank you for celebrating 50 years with us. We look forward to learning and sharing many more powerful lessons as we keep growing up together.