Interface, Twenty-Five Years Green

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Screen capture. Interface

25 years after the start of Mission Zero, they advance to Climate Take Back.

One of the very first posts ever on TreeHugger, back when the posts were short and the pictures were tiny, was titled Interface, Ten Years Green. The un-named writer noted, "Anderson wants not just to be an example, but a leader, influencing others." Ray Anderson died too young in 2011, and it is hard to believe that fifteen years have passed since we first wrote about them, but now that Interface has been going on Twenty-Five Years Green, the company (and Chief Sustainability Officer Erin Meezan) are still trying to influence others. They have just released Lessons for the Future, the Interface guide to changing your business to change the world.

Interface has been pretty successful at making meaningful change in their own operations:

  • 69% reduction in carbon footprint of Interface carpet tile products
  • 96% reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions globally
  • 89% renewable energy use across its factories globally, with 100% renewable electricity
  • 99% renewable energy use in U.S. and European manufacturing sites
  • 46% reduction in energy use per unit of production to make products globally
  • 89% water use reduction per unit of production in factories globally
  • 92% reduction of waste to landfill across global business
Circular approach

Interface/Screen capture

Now they have been trying to get to zero net impact on the environment, and are "taking a circular approach."

We’ve shifted our raw materials to ones that can be reused and recycled effectively. We now use recycled materials in many parts of our carpets including recycled nylon in the carpet face, recycled materials in our base layers and substrates and recycled materials in our backings. In 1994, all of the materials we used to make carpet were from virgin sources. Fast forward to present day, 60% of the raw materials in our carpets now come from recycled or biobased sources.

A few years ago I complained that Interface had entered the vinyl market because a lot of people want solid surfaces these days; you don't see carpet tiles in the lofts and the WeWork style offices. Virgin vinyl is a solid petrochemical, but older vinyls were full of stabilizers and softeners like phthalates, so Interface made a less toxic product, a better flooring, but it was still problematic for this TreeHugger. However, they are even fixing that:

We’ve also begun the shift to recycled materials in our luxury vinyl tile products, something we started selling in 2016. Working with our supplier for LVT, we’ve increased the recycled content of our LVT products this summer and have plans to move toward more recycled content across all of our LVT product portfolio. To enhance our ability to recycle our carpet and products from customers at their end of life, we’ve eliminated materials that should not be recycled, such as phthalates, formaldehyde and fluorocarbons.

They are also strong advocates of producer responsibility, taking back carpet tile and LVT for reuse and recycling.

start a ripple

Interface/Screen capture

If you look at any of Interface's competitors, they have all picked up on sustainability. But other unrelated businesses have learned from them too:

As Mission Zero® progressed, we started mentoring others. We hosted business leaders at Interface and encouraged them to establish their own sustainability agendas. In 2004, Ray presented Interface’s progress to a group of WalMart executives at their headquarters; then they visited us to learn how we changed our business. Our trailblazing and our results convinced the world’s largest retailer that it was possible, and profitable, to focus on sustainability. We also created the ripple effects by giving other businesses ways to participate in our sustainable solutions. When we worked with suppliers to develop more sustainable raw materials, it gave others the opportunity to access the same materials. When we worked to develop renewable energy sources, the benefits extended beyond our company to others in the community.

Carpet tile is pretty niche, and I will never consider vinyl to be green. Yet many people with no interest in either product are familiar with Interface and Ray Anderson. Their Mission Zero has been a model for others, and they are not stopping now, and are aiming for Climate Take back, where they actually go carbon negative and make the world a better place. It is a bit of a work in progress, but the goal is ambitious:

While we radically decarbonize our current systems, we’ll also need to restore and protect natural carbon sinks and scale up carbon removal technologies. Finally, we’ll need to develop a business system that allows all of this to happen and encourages others to adopt this plan.

We met Erin Meezan in Atlanta at Greenbuild, and she is nothing if not ambitious and serious about sustainability. She is quoted in a press release:

We’ve changed our business to change the world, and we’ve achieved goals we never thought were possible. Mission Zero has taught us important lessons about the future. It’s taught us about business models, moon-shot aspirations and solving material challenges with science and imagination. Mission Zero set us up to achieve our next impossible mission— Climate Take Back.