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Interface, the Georgia-based carpet manufacturer, is possibly the most-cited example of how to run a environmental business. Its CEO, Ray Anderson, has long been an advocate of teach-by-example sustainable practices, and his company has shown how to put cutting-edge ideas into practice and profit handsomely.

As part of her recent article on taking green business practices to the next level, Sarah Fister Gale spoke with Jim Hartzfeld, the managing director of the company's consulting group, InterfaceRAISE, in a wide-ranging interview about how Interface took their green goals to the next level, and help other companies make the most of their operations.

Part one of this two-part podcast looks at the history of Interface and Interface RAISE, and the ways in which the company put its ideas to work in-house before spreading the word far and wide.

Next week we'll dig into specific examples from InterfaceRAISE and get advice from Jim on shifting to a new mindset to take your company down a greener path.

Sarah Fister Gale: First tell me a little bit about InterfaceRAISE, and then I'd like to go over some of the achievements you've made at Interface.

Jim Hartzfeld: O.K. Well, quickly, InterfaceRAISE is a relatively new business unit of the Interface Inc. family of companies. Most of our companies obviously focus on the manufacturing of carpet around the world on four continents, mostly for the commercial space, but increasingly for the residential space.

Our chairman and founder, Ray Anderson, in '94, had a complete personal and, I guess, business epiphany on the subject of the environment and sustainable development and from the very beginning, saw it as a big, big strategic idea that if he could figure it out, could perhaps make his competitors obsolete.

Now we haven't done that yet, obviously, but the idea of it being a core strategy of the business that would drive business value and innovation, and from the beginning that was a key piece of that. Well, for several years as we worked to develop that, certainly in 1994, there were no recipes.

There were no textbooks that you could go to. But what happened is that became more and more obvious to companies around us, and even our analysts that cover our stock for Wall Street (saw) that this had become a core piece of the competitiveness of Interface. As that information and awareness began to spread, more and more companies kept coming to Interface to ask how did you do this? How can we do this? It came to the point where almost in response to that interest we created InterfaceRAISE as a separate group, as a consulting group to help other people.

Our model is a peer-to-peer business model of business people helping business people just based on the 14 years of experience that we've had in making this happen in a publicly-traded company. We see increasingly that people really value that kind of perspective separate from some of the other people that are working in the space.

SFG: Right. It's interesting you say throughout all of that example that this was a good business strategy, that it helped you be competitive, so this was never just about being an environmentally good citizen. It was in doing those things, you made your company better.

JH: Yes, well there are two pieces of that, and I'd talk about it and in some different parts of the world, different terms seem to have more weight or more prevalence when you talk about CSR, corporate social responsibility or sustainable development. The big idea I think is there are two pieces of that. Yes, given the scale, the scope, the influence that business has on the world stage, it does have a responsibility, but the key point is recognizing there's a huge business opportunity absolutely tied to that, and that was I think somewhat of what was unique about Ray Anderson's epiphany on the subject in '94, that simultaneously he saw both of those. Absolutely, as the largest maker of commercial carpet in the world, he had a responsibility to stop doing what we were increasingly being aware of, what we were doing to ecological systems, but from a business opportunity standpoint from efficiency, and innovation, and reputation, and cost, and productivity, we saw big opportunities.

SFG: Let's talk a little bit about some of the opportunities that you saw and took advantage of. How did you begin in 1994?

JH: Well, in 1994, we had no idea what was going on. It just began from a gathering of pesky California customers who started asking really obnoxious questions that nobody had answers for. I just happened to have joined the company from DuPont, and I think being the new kid on the block, I got the weird project. How do we create answers to these customers and that's something that's just always deeply rooted in Ray Anderson. He remembers founding a company, building a factory, having raw materials in the warehouse, people trained, everything ready to go and not one order on the books.