Elephants and North Stars: 4 steps to meet sustainability goals

If you’ve succeeded in getting your company to set some ambitious public goals around sustainability, maybe even some big, hairy, audacious, North Star-type goals like “zero waste” or “100 percent renewable energy,” you may be asking, “What now?” Most sustainability reporting and management systems, including ISO 14001 and GRI, require some kind of goal setting, but certainly don’t require them to be bold or transformational. You could hire a sustainability strategy consultant, but in case that’s not in your budget, we humbly offer four lessons from Interface’s journey up Mount Sustainability.

Interface’s North Star goal is today known as Mission Zero, a refinement of Ray Anderson’s original “7 Fronts of Mt. Sustainability” into a single public commitment to eliminate by 2020 any negative impact we may have on the environment. North Star goals do not need to have a specific deadline to drive impressive results, as Walmart’s 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste goals have shown. But giving your North Star a deadline certainly lights a fire under the process of figuring out how to get from here to there. We have a long way to go before 2020, but we will presume to share what has worked so far.

1. Find the elephant in the room

“I still remember the year you hung the giant elephant over your booth.” Visitors to our 2012 Greenbuild tradeshow booth were still talking about our booth from three years ago, when we asked the question, “What’s the elephant in the room for a tradeshow full of green product manufacturers?” The answer is the single biggest driver of our company’s unsustainability, and Anderson identified in the earliest days of his epiphany: dependence on oil.

Anderson often described the carpet industry as so petro-intensive that it was practically an extension of the oil industry. The various plastics and chemicals in carpet came almost entirely from oil feedstocks. Add to this the oil burned to fuel the extraction, refining, processing, shipping and manufacturing of these materials and we’re neck-deep in the black stuff. Our message that year boiled down to two words: “Off Oil,” a campaign within the larger Mission Zero commitment, focused on eliminating the single biggest driver of our company’s negative environmental impact.

What’s your elephant? What is the biggest thing your company must address, however difficult, if you are serious about your sustainability goals? Doing a life cycle environmental footprint analysis of your company can be a useful tool for answering this question. This kind of analysis showed us that nothing affects our footprint like our raw materials (especially virgin nylon). Similarly, footprint analysis will show a retailer that their supply chain is what matters. For an automaker, the elephant will be fleet fuel efficiency. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on anything else in sustainability, but it does mean that everything else will be less meaningful if you’re ignoring the elephant in your room.

2. Build the North Star into the business

The key thing that distinguishes early corporate social responsibility efforts from the modern movement toward sustainable business is whether you have a business strategy that links sustainability progress with increasing profitability. The sustainability business case leads directly to incremental improvements in efficiency, but the case for North Star goals may require a bit more creativity and vision.

For our Off Oil goal, we clarified five strategies that we have been driving to eliminate dependence on the elephant:

  1. Use less energy.
  2. Use less material.
  3. Make it last.
  4. Turn carpet backing into carpet backing.
  5. Turn carpet fiber into carpet fiber.

The first three align naturally with reducing costs, but the last two run into the market reality that recycled materials usually cost more (and that most customers won’t pay more). Raw materials are not just the biggest driver of our footprint, they are also our biggest cost, so any increase in the unit cost of materials has serious implications. In the absence of simple cost reductions or efficiency gains, we had to challenge some basic assumptions.

Next page: From aspirational to short-term goals