Interface: Lessons in resilience from superstorm Haiyan

This was going to be a column about social intrapreneurship and the origins of Net-Works, a partnership launched by our carpet-manufacturing company Interface in remote fishing villages in the central Philippines. But Mother Nature had other ideas.

By early October, Interface's on-the-ground Net-Works partner, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), had created community banking centers in 26 impoverished fishing villages in the Danajon Bank, Bohol Province, Bantayan Islands and northern Cebu.

These bought discarded nylon fishing nets from local people who had collected them off beaches, out of fragile mangrove areas or from fishing boats. Participants had the option to receive cash immediately or deposit their earnings into the community-run banks. Our first shipments of nets from Danajon Bank already had been regenerated into new carpet yarn by our supplier Aquafil, and the program looked ready to grow rapidly.

Then the earthquake hit.

When natural disasters strike

A magnitude 7.2 quake with its epicenter right underneath some of our Net-Works sites on Danajon Bank caused massive devastation in areas where most people already were living well below the poverty line. More than 200 people lost their lives and at least 15,000 structures were destroyed.

But as outside aid arrived and people struggled to meet their most basic needs, a funny thing happened: Net-Works actually grew. Since Oct. 15, when the earthquake hit, these Net-Works sites have recorded their two biggest collection months ever. It appears that rather than being disrupted by the disaster, Net-Works became an even more important source of additional income.

The communities near the northern Net-Works sites had not been much affected by the earthquake, but they were not so lucky three weeks later when Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) made landfall on Bantayan Islands with record-breaking winds of nearly 200 mph. Working closely with ZSL, we have mobilized aid for this remote region, but even weeks later, it is still difficult to get an accurate picture of the scale of destruction; in many places not a single structure was left standing. There is still no indication of whether fishing net collection has continued in this region.

No one can legislate for earthquakes, and the Philippines always have experienced typhoons, but the unprecedented ferocity of Haiyan and the frequency of recent storms raises more troubling questions that go far beyond our small program.

Climate change's impact on impoverished communities

The Danajon Bank, a densely populated coastal area where most people live on a few dollars a day and only a few feet above sea level, is a real-life example of how the threat of climate change is poised to fall most heavily on those who can least afford it (and have done the least to contribute to it).

In the wake of the devastation wrought on the central Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, our Net-Works narrative has shifted. 

Interface started Net-Works to explore this question: Is it possible to source the materials for our product in a way that restores ecosystems and benefits impoverished communities?

But Haiyan begs an even bigger question: What is a multinational corporation's role in addressing growing climate change impacts on the world's most vulnerable communities? And how do we contribute in a way that is not just a Band-Aid that must be re-applied after each increasingly common super-storm?

The question of what companies can do has become even more urgent in the face of global government gridlock, which continued to afflict the recent round of UN climate negotiations in Poland. Even a lengthy hunger strike undertaken by the Philippines' lead negotiator failed to provoke substantial movement on commitments to reduce emissions or address "loss and damage" suffered by vulnerable developing countries.

Lessons from Net-Works

The surge in Net-Works participation after the earthquake indicates that it perhaps has a piece of the puzzle. We do not know the long-term impact of the program yet, but we do know that when these twin disasters struck, some Danajon families participating in Net-Works had money in the bank for the first time in their lives that could help them rebuild. We also know that the relationship we have with these communities extends beyond charity to something more durable, grounded in healthy and mutual self-interest.

Interface, Aquafil and ZSL initially assisted more than 1,600 families with urgently needed supplies, and has shifted focus to rebuilding homes and livelihoods. The longer-term challenge for supply chain initiatives such as Net-Works is fostering communities that can maintain their cultural, ecological and economic integrity over time, even in the face of climate change.

For Interface, the Net-Works partnership seemed to be the first step toward fulfilling Ray Anderson's original vision to be a "restorative enterprise" that makes the world better while growing business. But with climate change already upon us, it seems that our aspiration to become restorative or even sustainable, especially in coastal developing countries, also will mean mastering the art of being highly resilient.

Photo of Panay island the morning after Typhoon Haiyan by Niar via Shutterstock