Why would top graduates from Harvard work for a carpet company?

“We have attracted talented people because of our sustainability approach.”
Rob Coombs, President and Chief Executive Officer, Asia Pacific

Interface is the global leader in the manufacture of modular carpets used in offices and homes. In the mid-1990s, the company started to embed sustainability in their business by implementing changes in the way they operate. This shift was driven right from the top, by the Founder and Chairman Ray Anderson.

Thanks to this change, Interface has achieved a great deal since 1996 – waste-to-landfill from carpet factories has gone down by over 91%, Greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product has been reduced by 92% and water intake intensity at manufacturing sites is down by 87%. And it makes business sense, with dramatic cost reductions for the company.

Designers at Interface look through a sustainability lens and come up with innovative and sustainable products. However, customers may not want to pay a premium for sustainability. It is possible to address customer’s apathy towards sustainability by designing a good product that solves the customer’s needs in the best possible way and that is a sustainable product at the same time.

Interface learned this lesson the hard way. They had a leasing service for clients, that turned out unsuccessful. It was a great idea, but the reason it didn’t work was that it didn’t make commercial sense for the customer. How do you value a carpet at the end of its life? It is important to be patient to change behaviour, and engagement is necessary.

How do you generate an economy that is circular? Starting small, Interface engaged with fishing communities in the Philippines, encouraging fishermen to collect discarded nylon fishing nets that are destroying the coastal habitats and selling it as raw material that are used in some of Interface’s products.

Now, Interface is still breaking boundaries, and is changing their mindsets, from reducing the negative to have a positive impact. They are launching a new positive message with Mission Zero®. The aim is to become a restorative enterprise that gives back more than they take. One of the initiatives is to have zero negative impact on carbon, and even going beyond by having a positive impact on carbon. Admittedly, they have no idea how to do that, just as their people had no idea back in the 1990s how to do the things they have achieved for the last 23 years. It’s a challenge many top people are keen to be part of solving, to the benefit of all.

By Kaia Tan, Paia Consulting