When a sustainability leader opens its doors …

When clients ask us "How can we run our business both profitably and in an environmentally responsible way? Is all this effort we put in sustainability paying off in the long run? Isn't a sustainable product generally more expensive too?" - and believe me, they (you :-)) ask us more than often - we used to compose a long list of reports, interesting websites and cases. And we tried to convince them (yes, you!) with numbers, a lot of numbers. Generally, this analysis paralysis fails to do the trick.
Danielle Dewickere

Since two years, however, we take you to an immersion workshop at Interface. We closed off our latest edition this May!

Interface is the industry leader in modular carpet tiles. The company’s CEO, Ray Anderson, decided in 1994 to become the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable. While, at that time, Interface was still an extremely oil-intensive company, they were trying to shut down their smokestacks, close off their effluent pipes, do no harm to the environment and take nothing from the earth not easily renewed by the planet.

Interface incorporated sustainability into their DNA with amazing results:

  • a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 98% per unit of production;
  • a reduction in water use by 88% per unit of production;
  • 58% of the total raw materials are biobased and made of recycled materials.

But even more amazing is that, at the same time, they rushed to market dominance in the modular carpet industry with over $1 billion in revenue – forcing competitors to adopt similar sustainable business practices as well. How about that for measuring success.

Interface strived to be the first – but not the only – company that is environmentally sustainable and ultimately restorative. A purpose that was proven clearly as Interface’s COO Ton Van Keken and sustainability manager Geanne Van Arkel welcomed us warmly at the site in Scherpenzeel to tell and show us all aspects of their sustainability journey. During the 24 hours of this immersion, an engaged group of curious CEO’s, sustainability and innovation managers shared insights on their journey so far, on successes and barriers and most of all on solutions to overcome the obstacles they ran into. In addition, the exchange between amongst others Knauf, Sabic, Signify, Vanderlande, Van Roey, Verhaert and VITO was a cross-sector fertilisation, clearly broadening and intensifying the scope (and pace!) of our discussions.

Interface had a Mission Zero, a promise to become restorative by 2020 and eliminate any negative impact they may have on the environment. With 2020 coming closer and closer – they reiterated and revised their mission. Today Interface aims to Take the Climate Back with the goal to turn negative impacts on the environment into positive solutions and become regenerative. The work of Paul Hawken, the Natural Step and popular sustainability frameworks like biomimicry gave them the insights to organize their company as nature does. Just as the circular economy uses nature as a template. It gives Interface a great opportunity for improving their customer solutions (transforming their spaces in sustainable ones) as well as for improving production sites (running their factories as forests with less resources needed and lower impact).

What can you take away from this, you may ask?

  1. Sustainability is everywhere. During an operations Gemba walk we saw sustainability in practice at Interface, being reflected in:
    • the visualisation of the factory;
    • the machinery and the way it is handled (reduction of production leftovers due to cutting the carpet);
    • the packaging of resources and products;
    • the transportation and energy used and re-used.
  1. The transition to a circular economy is a question of leadership and willpower. Of an organization in its industry. Of an employee in its organization. We learned that the C-level should drive the sustainability transformation. Either it should start at that level or full support should be given by the CEO when the sustainability ambition starts bottom-up. Your management should walk the talk and set concrete and clear goals that are in reach and linked to the organization’s goals.
  1. Systems drive behaviour. With a systemic approach you make sure the whole organization takes sustainability aspects and their long term objectives into account; both at strategic (year-to-year) and operational (day-to-day) level. Systems such as Interface’s inclusion of emissions targets in comp&ben, the product sustainability evaluation & certification process or an ambassador program hardwire sustainability in both your core processes (product development, strategic marketing …) and in your culture. This way they enable the desired behaviour and results in an organization.
  1. Sustainability creates added value in filling your customer needs. It makes you buying profit and turns out to be extremely smart. Circular value creation strategies can unlock value in building new markets and value propositions, at Interface for example by creating a positive space for customers or in by using a takeback business model.

The main eye openers of the participants?

  • “It’s about raising awareness and working together to connect the value chains. We should create partnerships in our whole value chain.” – Jona Michiels, Van Roey
  • “The current market circumstances are right to start.” – Thomas Marinelli, Signify
  • “We need ambassadors; get employees trained and make a shift in our company culture to create an innovative environment that reinforces loops.” – Geert Verachtert, Van Roey
  • “Most solutions (be it technological or otherwise) are available, though ‘just’ have to be implemented. Connecting the dots requires good guidance, experiments and perseverance.”Dany Robberecht, Verhaert
  • “This workshop gave me the insights to build the business case for sustainability in my organization; and convince our top management.”Leon van der Loo, Möbius

So when clients ask us why sustainability pays off (literally) – We won’t tell you, but just show you.


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