How community service helps build a great company

It’s Tuesday afternoon of the Interface Americas annual sales meeting, the global CEO is packing boxes at a food bank, the Americas CEO is calling bingo at the senior center and the CIO is building a garden box. What could this possibly have to do with running a sustainable carpet company? We’d like to make the case that it’s one of the most important things we do to keep sustainability alive and well at Interface.

At Interface, we talk about sustainability all the time and people all over our organization have some direct connection to this mission, whether through manufacturing, marketing, supply chain or sales. But even if they have some idea of sustainability and how it relates to them and their everyday work, do they really feel sustainability? “Feel” is the key word, because motivation, engagement and finding your work meaningful do not come from intellectual understanding, but from emotional connection.

Spending a nearly a quarter of our annual two-day sales meeting building garden boxes in a community garden, reading to school kids, playing bingo with seniors, installing carpet at a children's home and stocking a food bank will not eliminate our environmental footprint, but it will provide more of an emotional connection to our mission than carbon offsets ever could.

Since 2005 it has become an annual rite to identify and engage local organizations in the city where we hold our sales meeting and to send out a crew of 250 volunteers to spend a half-day on the projects of their choice. Participating in this tradition reinforces the identity of Interface as a company that leaves the places where we work better than we found them, and the people we partner with inspired and fulfilled. We call them "Legacy Projects" for the positive impact we hope to leave.

In his very first speech on sustainability at Interface in 1994, Ray Anderson asked us to take on the challenge of becoming the first "restorative enterprise," and "do good for the earth, not just no harm." This has long since expanded to explicitly include "doing good" for the people and places we depend on to make our business successful.

You may well be asking, "How is this really any different from the kind of corporate community service that has existed for decades?" The first big difference is context. Legacy Projects would not have the same impact if they were a stand-alone event that everyone was expected to get excited about once a year. These projects give associates an opportunity to get their hands dirty (sometimes literally) demonstrating our sustainability commitment and the Power of One.

Next page: Engaging cynics and old-timers