What to do when you've picked all the low-hanging fruit

Since early 2008, an intentional, global, and mostly internal dialogue has been going on to address the question of how Interface will accelerate its sustainability journey to meet our ambitious goals of zero environmental footprint by 2020.

The company has accomplished significant milestones thanks to a passionate, driven team of dedicated individuals guided by Ray Anderson's vision, but today we find ourselves just halfway to Mission Zero with eight years left to make good on our promise to eliminate any negative impact our company might have on Earth.

Many of our EcoMetrics that show such impressive cumulative accomplishments since 1994 have actually plateaued in recent years, and it's understood that there is no more "low hanging fruit." We are in the "tall canopy" zone and have been for several years.

It's also understood that no one individual, team, or business unit can tackle the rest of our sustainability journey alone, nor can Interface. This journey is about redesigning our supply chain and reinventing commerce -- which necessarily requires collaboration internally across multiple scales spanning individual roles, departments, business units, regionally and globally, and, of course, external collaborators.

Against a backdrop of global climate, economic, social and ecological destabilization, how do we continue to advance, accelerate no less, a bold mission and weather the storms?

This is not the first time Interface has found itself in uncharted territory on its sustainability journey and the one thing that is certain is that we will need to adapt and learn together. In fact, we believe that continuing to develop our ability to learn as an organization, even in the face of economic uncertainties, holds the key to achieving Mission Zero while growing our business globally.

In the early days of Interface's sustainability journey, the learning was fast and furious and one of the most effective initiatives was the QUEST program -- Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions and Teamwork. The goal was to eliminate waste but the process relied heavily on frameworks of organizational learning -- team learning, systems thinking and shared dialogue. The cadence of meeting globally every six months kept the heat on to get results quickly.

In the face of the economic knockout combo of the Dot-Com Bubble, Y2K, and 9/11, the global aspect of our QUEST meetings was no longer funded and instead local QUEST efforts were relied upon to continue the good work of eliminating waste (resulting in $438 million in cumulative avoided costs to date). While the local QUEST efforts have proven to be effective, hindsight brings to bear the question of missed opportunities from sharing our local best practices quickly and effectively across our global operations.

Economic downturns continued to be an impediment to more consistent investment in organizational learning when in May 2008, we launched the Next Ascent Global Summit, to reignite the global aspect of Interface's efforts towards accomplishing our 2020 goals and putting additional visioning into social sustainability. Designed using appreciative inquiry techniques and action learning frameworks, enthusiasm was created and new global relationships formed. But once again, the economic downturn in Fall 2008 resulted in budgets cuts and curtailed further work for global organizational learning.

We are left to wonder what the cost has been of all the stops and starts. To a certain extent, we end up reinventing the wheel in each economic cycle. What would be possible for Mission Zero if we designed a more resilient system for organizational learning that could drive rapid progress even in bad times?

Next Page: Pushing the boundaries to create a more sustainable future.