Interface, one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the world, long has found inspiration in forests. Its designers literally took to the woods in search of ways to do carpet more sustainably, but instead of looking up to the canopy or into the leafy understory, they kept their eyes cast toward their feet.
That's when they realized that nature's carpet is infinitely unique, with no two sticks or stones alike. Therein lies its beauty, and there they found the inspiration for their "fifth wall": a carpeted floor made up of unique patches that can be laid down in any order and easily replaced, just like nature's carpet.
This led to Interface's "Mission Zero" campaign, which aims for zero emissions, zero waste and zero oil by 2020. The company set up an infrastructure for recycling carpet, including that from other companies, and put itself on the path to a "closed loop" manufacturing process that uses no virgin material.
But when it came to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they had a serious problem.
Emissions don't end with the sale
If you really want to make a carbon-neutral carpet, Interface reasoned, you should be able to vacuum it without generating emissions. That, the company concluded, was impossible as long as vacuum cleaners are run on fossil fuels. A carpet typically lasts seven years, and that much vacuuming and cleaning leads to about three times the carbon emissions that were generated during its manufacture. What's more, even if Interface limited its carbon-neutral ambitions to the manufacturing process, the cost of squeezing the last bits of greenhouse gas out of the process would drive the cost of their carpets through the roof.
In the end, Interface decided to use carbon offsets to reduce its carbon footprint. Through the "Cool Carpets" program, the company calculates the emissions of its carpets from "cradle to grave" — from source material to customer use to recycling — and then purchases offsets to cancel those emissions out.
It's a decision they made more than a decade ago, and now they are one of the largest purchasers of voluntary carbon offsets in the United States.
Buddy Hay has been in charge of voluntary carbon purchases since 2002, and he has seen the voluntary market transform from a do-it-yourself experimentation a decade ago to an established marketplace with differentiated products, third-party certifiers and plenty of broker "storefronts" that facilitate transactions.
Growing with the market
When the company began offsetting, there was no established carbon market. Interface convened its own panel of advisers to help navigate what was then a Wild West of offsets. The company purchased its first tons from a Blue Source carbon capture and storage project and went from there. Today, Interface invests in projects from the U.S., Guatemala and Kenya to Brazil, India and Thailand. Hay more or less manages the offset-buying single-handedly, a task that he calls "the third half of my job." He estimates that the company now spends about $2 million on offsets a year.
Interface works with several companies, including First Climate, the CarbonNeutral Company, NativeEnergy, South Pole Carbon and Social Carbon, to negotiate two- to four-year contracts with project developers all over the world. Interface's good reputation in the marketplace, and the fact that it often purchases all the offsets generated by a particular project over the contract period, often gets the company a good price, Hay said. Interface's contracts are structured to mitigate against risk by specifying the number of offsets that must be delivered by a certain date — whether from the originally contracted project or another one.
The company essentially buys two categories of offsets: the less expensive, higher volume "commodity" offsets and the pricier "boutique" offsets for projects with benefits beyond carbon. Hay's strategy is necessarily a hybrid one: Given the volume of offsets the company buys, Interface cannot afford to spend $10 per ton across the board, and yet Hay likes to support boutique projects such as forestry. Interface has invested in offsets from a REDD project in Kenya and from reforestation projects in Guatemala and Tanzania. Currently, it's supporting carbon management of 12,000 acres of Forest Stewardship Council-certified land in North Carolina and Virginia.
Connecting with consumers
Although Interface's sustainability goals are guided by an internal compass rather than consumer pressure, the company makes a point of letting its customers know that they are purchasing not just carpet, but carbon. Although the company absorbs the offsets cost without re-billing customers, Interface's salespeople present all carpet-buyers with a certificate specifying the number of offsets retired on their behalf. Hay admits that only a subset of customers initially care about carbon neutrality, but he also believes that doing right by the climate gives Interface a marketing advantage. Even if buyers remain unmoved by the idea, the offset certificates "give our salespeople a new reason to get in front of their customers," he said.
This story originally appeared on the Ecosystem Marketplace website.
Vacuum photo by Africa Studio via Shutterstock.