The TH Interview: Ray Anderson—The Man with a Spear in his Chest (Part Two)



Interface sells carpet to the tune of $1,100,000,000 each year. That is just one reason why the business world listens up when Ray Anderson speaks. Ray describes his ecological awakening as "a spear in the chest," a wound he has used to both his company's advantage, and the planet's. Giving rebirth to 133 million pounds of carpet is just the beginning. Anderson and his design teams are hard at work studying nature's delicate technologies—like the sticky feet of geckos—to make products better, cleaner, and more beautiful. Here, the founder of Interface shares his insights on biomimicry, right-brain thinking, cradle-to-cradle design, and our innate "biophilia." ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Special thanks go to CraigMichaels, the organizer of the Sustainable Operations Summit, for arranging this interview.

Also, check out part one of our Ray Anderson interview. (Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: What's the next big thing for Interface?

Ray Anderson: We've had some recent breakthroughs in technology that are really important. We have done something DuPont told us could not be done. We've closed the loop on the nylon of the type that we use most, the so-called nylon 6, 6 (the six indicates the molecular structure of the polyamide molecule).

DuPont didn't think it could be done economically. We're doing it economically—closing that loop. We have, even earlier than that, several years ago, managed to close the loop on the backing of the product. So now we've got the top side of the carpet and the bottom side of the carpet both closed-loop. And the limitation is how much used carpet we can get back from the marketplace, from the world of used carpet.

The typical general contractor goes into a building where there's carpet on the floor to be renovated and he rips the carpet up and without a thought sends it to the landfill. Well, we've got to change those people's thought process so they will say, "Hey, wait a minute. Maybe this ought not to go to the landfill if somebody wants it. Let's send it there."

So the challenge for us is to get the word out into that broad, broad, broad community that we want this stuff back. Not just our stuff, but anybody's. Because each of those is to be converted into different waste streams, each one with its own characteristics. We're finding markets for all of it.

TH: Interface is a big company. Give me a sense of how big, really.

RA: Sales are $1,100,000,000 a year. We produce on four continents in six countries. Sell our products in 110 countries. About 4,000 people are the direct employees of Interface. So it's a global company, and we're basically where our customers are, anywhere in the world.

TH: What are some of the key design principles that have emerged over the years as you've invented and reinvented your products?

RA: We made the world's very first free-lay carpet tile, meaning a carpet tile that stays on the floor without glue keeping it there. And that requires dimensional stability of a very high order. So we produce, and we actually patented, the backing system that created this dimensional stability and the floor-hugging ability of the tile without glue.

The patents have now expired, but in the beginning we created the better mousetrap and got a patent on it. And now others are emulating that technology, but nobody's quite done it as well as we've done it. So that's continued to be a design stroke competitive advantage because the world of carpet tiles divides into two camps; those that can be freelaid and those that must be glued down. And there's not anything in between.

It's a binary world and we have lived and played and made our living over on the free-lay side of that equation. And we've seen our competitors opt for the glue and, at the end of the day, penalize their customers, because glue robs the product of the flexibility it's designed for in the first place. So, I'm taking a shot at my competitors.

TH: Are you designing glue out of the process altogether?

RA: We've even taken it a step further. Even the free-lay tiles needed that grid of anchored tiles: 25-foot by 25-foot picture frames with self-lay tiles within the borders.

But we've recently developed a new invention that removes the glue completely. And it was inspired by the gecko, and the question: how does a gecko cling to the ceiling upside down? We're not using the van der Waals forces the way the gecko is, but out of that came an invention and a better way. So it's the world's very first totally glue-free, totally free-lay carpet tile.

TH: Anything that's gecko inspired must come from somebody who's been hanging out with Janine Benyus.

RA: Exactly. Our people truly look to nature for inspiration. They have regular out-of-the-box biomimicry design sessions. And you put a biologist with an engineer at a design table you're going to get sparks. And you're going to get different outcomes.

And you have a designer there who's taking it all in and incorporating it into the design and you're going to get products you never imagined. And that's happened with us and Janine Benyus' work, biomimicry, has totally inspired our design effort.

So you ask about principles, there's one that is now ingrained on us. It's in our DNA now: How would nature do this?'

TH: You talked about designing glue and other dubious substances out of your products. Give me some hard metrics on the reductions you've made in your emissions, what goes to the landfill, and so on.

RA: Scrap to the landfill is down two thirds. Someday it will be zero as we learn to recycle all the things that end up in scrap, having first reduced them to that irreducible minimum. We have recaptured product at the end of its first life, to give it life after life in the closed-loop material flow, to the tune of 133 million pounds, that's 66,500 tons reduced cumulatively. And that figure is increasing daily as we get more and more of our product back.

We've reduced our energy intensity 45% for the entire company, and fossil fuel derived energy intensity 60% for the entire company. And with the help of genuine offsets that we own, we've reduced the greenhouse gas emissions 82% in absolute tonnage and 93% in terms of intensity.

We reduced water usage by 75%. The biggest single thing there was eliminating wet printing as the means of imparting pattern to carpet. Today we build the pattern in as the product is produced at the tufting machine, and don't rely on the wet printing afterward. That's been a huge saver of both energy and water because wet printing is very energy intensive. It requires an aqueous application of dye, then energy-intensive steaming to fix the dye, and then washing with wash water to remove the excess unfixed dye, and then energy-intensive drying to remove the wash water.

And then you end up with wash water that requires treatment before it can be released into the stream. So it's a devilish process. And we just burned the bridge. We abandoned the technology, scrapped the strand of investment and moved on with a better way.

88% of our electricity for running our factories is now renewable. We're buying it from the grid in Europe, which is a big advantage. We can't get it from the grid here, but we're buying renewable energy credits and not taking credit for the renewable energy credits until the controversy is sorted out about double counting. So we're buying them but not taking credit for buying them.

27% of our total energy now is from renewable sources. (We use a lot of energy that's not electricity; so it's 88% of electricity but only 27 of total energy.) 25% of our material now is coming from renewable sources, primarily from reclaiming used products. And that's increasing rapidly as these new technologies come upstream. And we develop the reverse logistics to get those products back.

Who counts smokestacks? We do! And we've abandoned 52% of our smokestacks—obviated them with process changes. Who counts the effluent pipes? We do. We've eliminated 81% of our effluent pipes, a lot of that having to do with the wet printing process we abandoned.

Oh, and the one that's paved the way for all of that is the waste elimination effort; the first face of the mountain. The first face to climb, the one to get ahead of the game, ahead of the cost curve, is waste. And we are now cumulatively $372 million ahead on waste elimination, which has more than funded all of the R and D, all the process changes, and all of the expense of training people; the whole ball of wax.

Which brings us to another principle. We have very deliberately said that we're thinking of this company in a holistic way. And when we make a savings in waste, we have a choice. We can put it in our pockets, keep it. Or we can reinvest it. And we've chosen to reinvest a good bit of that.

So thinking of the company holistically and being willing to invest savings— savings made here are invested there—it has enabled this whole process of reinventing the company. And today the business case for sustainability, is crystal clear. Look at Interface. Our costs are down, not up, dispelling that myth, (that there's this is trade off between the environment and the economy). It doesn't have to be, if you're smart about it.

Our products are the best they've ever been. Biomimicry is a big part of that. And sustainable design is bigger than even the biomimicry. Sustainable design is a big, big part of our products being better than any other. Our people are galvanized around this shared higher purpose. You can't beat it for bringing people together and holding on to good people. We've had people come to work for us who never would have dreamed of going into the carpet industry. And they don't think they're making carpet. They're making history. They're doing something with real purpose.

And Abraham Maslow said it a long time ago: at the top of that pyramid of human needs is this need for self-actualization, which translates into purpose.

And then the goodwill of the marketplace has just been phenomenal. The same customers who were asking us 14 years ago, "What's your company doing for the environment," have embraced the company for what we are trying to do for the environment. So the goodwill of the marketplace is just amazing. And as the world turns green, we are the green carpet company.

TH: You talk about left-brain thinking and right-brain thinking. How does that relationship play itself out in your world?

RA: Listen, any meeting that has a woman present is a different meeting and a better meeting. I have two women on my board. One's African-American. They are terrific. The conversation around the boardroom table never strays too far from sustainability. They bring it back. I don't have to do it. They do it.

Women think differently, generally speaking. And they bring that nurturing nature to bear. And we left-brained men have created the mess that the world is in. And the destruction of the biosphere, that's our doings. That's left-brained thinking. That's practical and pragmatic thinking right there that's got us in the mess we're in. So yeah, we need a different kind of thinking.

Einstein said it himself. You can't solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created the problem. You've got to go to a different level. And that's one thing that women do. And the ascendancy of women in business and industry and government, in the professions, is hugely important. It's one of the most encouraging trends of all today.

TH: When you speak publicly—and this is a very bold thing to do because you sometimes have people in your audience who are not into doing this kind of thing—but you ask people to close their eyes and picture a place of comfort, and then you ask them a question. What do you ask them?

RA: I ask them, first of all, to find that place in their mind's eye, that place of peace and repose and tranquility and serenity, their perfect comfort zone. I let them think about it. And I didn't dream this up myself, someone else on the environmental speaking circuit. I've never been able to find out who does this. But then I ask them: How many of you were somewhere outdoors?

97% of the hands in the audience go up every time. And I've done it around the world. I've done it probably 200 times now around the world: Canada, United States, England, France, Germany. And every hand goes up. People gravitate to nature. It's built into us.

Ed Wilson, the great Harvard biologist, coined the term in 1986 "biophilia." We have it engrained in us. We are nature. We don't come from nature. We are nature. And we may try to retreat from nature, but subliminally we gravitate back to nature.

But what we don't seem to recognize, as a society, is that nature undergirds civilization itself. You tell me what business, what economy, what country can operate without air, water, food, energy, material, climate control regulation, an ultraviolet radiation shield, pollination, seed dispersal, water purification and distribution through the hydrological cycle, flood control, and insect control. All are supplied by nature. Without any one of those there's no economy in the first place.

When people say, "Well, what's nature worth?" you don't have to go through some complex calculation. Whatever GDP is, that's what nature is worth that year. Because nature supplied it all. Nature is the goose that lays all the golden eggs. It's older than Jack and the beanstalk, and older than that, in fact. Nature is the goose that lays all the golden eggs, and we have to take care of that goose. We squeeze it too hard at our own peril.

Tags: Carpets | Corporate Responsibility | Dematerialization | Green Jobs | Reusability | TH Interview | Waste