By asking suppliers to increase the level of recycled fibres, the modular carpet manufacturer and its partners have become leaders in sustainability
In the 1970s, entrepreneur Ray Anderson saw an opportunity to commercialise a new type of flooring, and founded a company that would go on to become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of modular carpet – Interface.
“Back in the 70s, he wasn’t really thinking about sustainability, but in the 90s, customers started asking what we were doing about the environment,” says regional sustainability partner Jon Khoo. “We were starting to lose a couple of jobs.” Anderson looked into it and found the firm was compliant but little more.
“He learned about the impact Interface was having [on the environment], and it shocked him,” says Khoo. “His baby was pumping out large amounts of greenhouse gases, using polymers and plastics, having a huge impact on the world.” To learn more, he started reading books like The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, which argues that commerce is destroying the planet and only industry leaders are powerful enough to stop it.
“He described it as ‘like a spear in the chest’, and realised it had to change,” says Khoo.
Ever since, Interface has been on a mission to neutralise its impact on the world. It’s why this B2B company – that many people probably won’t have heard of – is ranked third in the 2018 GlobeScan/SustainAbility Leaders Survey, behind Unilever and Patagonia. The firm has been working towards its Mission Zero aim – to have zero negative impact on the planet – for the past 25 years, and is due to complete it by 2020. It has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from energy use at manufacturing facilities by 96%, and the aim is for all products to be carbon neutral. So far luxury vinyl and carpet tile ranges are carbon neutral across the whole product lifecycle.
The next ambitious goal is Climate Take Back, a path to reducing global warming. Steps include using waste carbon as a resource and creating new models for materials sourcing. By 2040, the aim is to be a carbon-negative company. Contributing to reversing climate change is a monumental task, and obviously cannot be achieved by one business alone, so engaging the supply chain is critical.
That hasn’t always been easy. “At the beginning, the challenge was that we were banging a drum, but not everyone else was hearing it,” says Khoo. “Suppliers knew we were doing good, but they didn’t necessarily see their role in it.” That changed when the company started doing supplier summits. One of the first was getting all its yarn suppliers together, given two-thirds of Interface’s impact comes from raw materials, and two-thirds of its carpet tiles are yarn. At that first summit, while larger suppliers didn’t see the need to engage with the sustainability agenda, two of the smaller ones – Aquafil and Universal – did.
“They liked the vision of [sustainability] being good for business and the environment,” says Khoo. Interface challenged these suppliers to increase the levels of recycled fibres in their yarn. As a result, Aquafil is now one of the few companies to create nylon yarn from 100% recycled sources, supplying brands including Adidas and Stella McCartney.
“They’ve become leaders, says Khoo. “We inspired them, and now they inspire us. We set a challenge, and they rose to it.” While Khoo says there isn’t “a magic formula” for engaging suppliers, what helps is being able to show the environmental benefit alongside ROI and business benefits.
Dialogue is also important: “Don’t just put targets out there. Have a conversation about what they can do around recycled content or renewable energy use.” Now, he adds, “there’s a whole carnival of drums”, as more firms through the supply chain commit to prioritising sustainability. Interface is part of Dell and NGO Lonely Whale’s NextWave partnership “to build a supply chain around plastic”, alongside companies like General Motors and Trek Bicycle. It has also partnered with sustainable supply chain network 2degrees on its Manufacture 2030 programme, which uses a digital platform to engage with suppliers around emissions.
Deep thinking about engaging the supply chain and “how to turn waste into opportunity” has resulted in a programme to collect discarded nylon fishing nets from smaller communities, and use the fibres in its supply chain, via Interface’s Net-Works partnership (see column, left). “Many fishing nets are made from nylon mix, which is the same material we use in carpet tiles,” explains Khoo.
The nets are sold to Aquafil (“we are supplying our own supplier”) and the proceeds are reinvested into helping the communities diversify into areas like seaweed farming, which could then end up supplying cosmetics or food companies.
The procurement influence
Khoo firmly believes that procurement has plenty of power and influence to wield when it comes to improving sustainability throughout the business ecosystem. “You have the ability to ask questions through your procurement processes about what people are doing around climate change. There’s a whole set of tools in the RFP process that can be used to highlight these issues. Procurement has a real opportunity to use its influence to do good.”
“We have to make it competitive in value – obviously you’re not going to buy a pen for £10 – but you can have that dialogue,” he adds. “Even if it’s a new supplier, you can still have that discussion.”
Putting sustainability front and centre in business strategy isn’t always easy – sometimes you have to make decisions that sacrifice short-term success for long-term gain. But making those decisions, such as choosing to invest heavily in recycling technology, has paid off for Interface. “When we’re ambitious it inspires our suppliers and our customers,” says Khoo. “Sustainability has always kept us at the top. It’s taken us into forums and levels of discussions we would not normally have had.”
“You have to be committed to always walk the walk,” he adds. “There’s lots of green-washing [in business], and that’s a huge risk. To keep investors, customers and employees happy, being able to walk the walk is crucial. Look at yourself in a sustainability mirror and be willing to have an honest assessment of the impact you have. You have the opportunity to turn that around.”
While Interface had already been working with large fleets, it wanted to engage with smaller communities, tackling income inequality and improving livelihoods. Partnering with Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it has “created a supply chain with social and environmental impact, building a community-based supply chain for discarded nets,” says regional sustainability partner Jon Khoo.
Working with 40 coastal communities in the Philippines, Indonesia and Cameroon, more than 224 metric tonnes of nets have been collected to date – providing long-term benefits to marine life and the health of local people – and about 2,200 families have been given access to finance via community banking.
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