Can You Make a Green Product in a Gray Company? Part 2

Can You Make a Green Product in a Gray Company? Part 2

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.

Last week, in the first part of this two-part podcast, Sarah Fister Gale spoke with Jim Hartzfeld. He's the managing director of the company's consulting group, InterfaceRAISE. The conversation focused on how the company took its in-house green initiatives to the next level.  Today, we'll hear about how nature inspired Interface to break new ground in carpet design. Jim also will offer advice on changing the corporate mindset to spur innovation.

Sarah Fister Gale: Looking back over your years at Interface, what were some of the most innovative solutions that you found or changes that you made?

Jim Hartzfeld: There are a couple of them that I use a lot working with Interface RAISE clients. The ideas that we bring to them, or the examples, you're not going to use these examples explicitly to help your company. But these are examples of shifts in mindset and new ideas that can pop out -- whether you're an international, a huge food and beverage company, an aerospace company, a home builder, a financial services firm, massive retailer -- these are the same kinds of transitions you can make.

Two of them I mentioned are the most notable for us because they're such a different way of thinking. Several years ago, we came up with a carpet product called Entropy. The basic idea was that our designer -- following the work of Janine Benyus, biomimicry and Dana Baumeister, as well -- started looking out into nature at how nature made a floor. (They) sent their designers out literally as apprentices with journals to observe and just write what they saw, go back to the studio and do the same thing with how they've been designing carpet for 25 years. (What) they came up with couldn't have been more different. I just said, "Well, why is that?"

We started thinking and what we found was we were really plugged deep into the uniformity, conformity, Six Sigma-mindset of making 10,000 carpet tiles exactly the same so you could pull them out of the box and sit them next to each other. The designer came up with a radically simple idea: What if we made every single one different?

As you could imagine, the Six Sigma psychos in our company -- their heads blew off. They just couldn't think about that. It was just so foreign and so outrageous of an idea. But after a few months of tricking equipment into doing it -- because obviously the equipment was made for uniformity -- they came out with a product just to see what would happen.

It hit the bestseller list faster than any product in the history of Interface. We're, by a significant margin, the largest maker of carpet tile in the world. So that just leapt into the marketplace, but that idea and in following that thinking process, got us out of our traditional thinking. New, completely different ideas came to the table. Then, obviously, we had the courage to try something that would really look different compared to anything that we'd ever made before. But it's had a huge impact on our business and a good bit of the rest of the industry has tried to chase that.

SFG: That's an excellent example of changing your mindset but it also shows a lot of commitment from leadership to invest in a radically different, new product. What's the lesson there?

JH: Well, if you look at where you are, and you realize that's substantially different than where you want to be as a company, you've got to have courage to try some radical, different things. It's almost axiomatic that if you don't try something significantly different, you're never going to become something significantly different. It almost goes without saying.

Now part of the magic is making it clear and creating that big gap in people's minds, that driver to change -- big change, big hairy and audacious goals, which is an important part of this whole element. But if you're not willing to be daring, you're just not going to be the innovative leader in the industry.

I'll say some companies apply very appropriately a strategy of a fast follower. They just wait to see what works and they duplicate that as quickly as they can and try to do it more efficiently and at bigger scale. That's a viable business strategy. It just doesn't happen to be Interface's.

SFG: So you said you had a couple of examples. Can you share another one?

JH: Well, another one that's really interesting in its "differentness." And jokingly, some of this is urban legend so some of this inside Interface I'm not sure is 100 percent accurate but its the stories that get around.

This biomimicry thing had been so successful. Somebody had come back from vacation in the Caribbean and said, "How in the world can these geckos climb on the ceiling and we're constantly struggling with getting carpet stuck to the floor? What is up with this?"

So we've been using this nature thing, biomimicry, in this other area at work. Let's try that same thinking process and see what comes out of that, and they did. The short version of the story is that they literally had scientists studying the van der Waals forces on the tips of the hairs on the toes of geckos, understanding how geckos cling to things. And flies' feet: You can't imagine all the stuff a fly's foot actually does for a fly other than just using it to land on something. Feathers: how they stick together. Clams and mollusks, how they can connect to the floor of the bay or whatever. We studied all these different ideas of how nature sticks to things when it wants to pull apart.

What do you in this process is you study those different strategies most of the time with a biologist at the design table. That's the methodology of the biomimicry guild, but what you do is you study these different strategies nature uses and look for an idea that you can take that analogy back to your industrial setting and use that as a new idea to explore. That's what we did with this. How do you get a carpet glued to the floor? We have scientists who have made the greenest glue, we think, that you can buy anywhere.

The idea is we were just pounding that idea of creating the greenest, cleanest, no-VOC glue that you can possibly find on the planet. This started a thinking process that would completely go another direction.

It didn't end up having anything to do with gecko toes but simply a little, three inch-ish square piece of a hard tape with a little bit of adhesive that actually sticks up to the bottom of the carpet tile where the four corners come together. A roll of that stuff completely eliminates a pallet full of glue and buckets and stuff like that.

What we found in that process after we got people trained and used to using it and (increased) the learning curve is we can get carpet installed faster and cheaper than using the old method. When we applied our lifecycle assessment methodology to comparing this process versus the old glue process, it was an 89 percent reduction in environmental impact. And it was faster and cheaper so it is just leaping into the marketplace as an alternative carpet installation strategy when you're putting new (carpet) down, because you've already got some of that nasty glue stuff on the floor (with old carpet). It just works better.

So those are two examples I use where this thinking process leads you into a new place where you just at some point say, "Well, how dumb have I been? Why didn't I think of this 10 years ago?" But it's all around that mindset.

I got to know a guy in the Wal-Mart organization, Doug McMillan. That's the CEO of their Sam's Club business. After he brought his leadership team down for a day spent in a carpet mill, of all things, I asked him what he got out of the experience. He said, "Jim, I came to get the tips and the tricks. You guys have been doing this forever. What do I do? What do I not do? How do I get people engaged? What I got I didn't even know existed."

There was a lot of other things that contributed to this, not just his experience at Interface, but he said, "There's a whole set of glasses around this topic that I didn't know even existed, and when I put them on, the whole world looks different."

SFG: So where is Interface now? Have you achieved everything you set out to achieve, or is this a never ending process?

JH: No way have we achieved anything. At best, we think we may be nearing 50 percent of what we call now sustainability. That's our internal metaphor for this journey and we've articulated seven faces of this mountain that we're climbing altogether.

That just in itself highlights something that's really important. As you start realizing that there are bigger issues and bigger questions in organizations than how many BTU's you use and what's your carbon footprint. You can't help from moving into the space of story, metaphor, meaning, identity and things like that which the engineers just sometimes -- and I'm a recovering engineer from DuPont -- just cringe away from. But what we're finding is it's so important: The storyline that you try to create. Who are we? Who are we becoming? What are the picture stories that we can create to help people imagine what that is and see their role in that?

So sustainability is a very important element to us, and we encourage everyone to write similar kinds of analogies and story lines. But the point is, at best, are 50 percent along that way on average. There are some areas where we're further along than others. For instance, one that we feel relatively good about is in terms of a net greenhouse gas emissions. These are in absolute numbers: Interface is down 82 percent since 1996 as a baseline. I love to share that number and combine that with the $372 million dollars in savings and the old idea that we can't possibly sign onto Kyoto because a 7 percent reduction would destroy our entire economy. Those just don't fit together.

SFG: Jim, before I let you go, any last words of advice to companies who are just beginning down the path that you've been on for 14 years?

JH: Well, I guess a couple of basic ideas. How do you translate these global and sometimes very local challenges that frankly, we've all contributed to creating, how can you connect the solving of those challenges to the core of what you do as a business?

Always think about that. What does it mean to me when I'm a whatever? If I'm a telecom company, it's important what the greenhouse gas emissions of my service trucks are but I'm about connecting people for communication. Well, it seems like that might be your role in sustainability. That's a piece of the whole strategy, but the core of the strategy to me should be around communication.

So connecting it to the core is first, and then expanding your idea of what are the opportunities (are) from a business value standpoint. Yes, there's brand reputation. Everybody's seen that, but increasingly, if you don't deliver, you're going to get hammered from a greenwash standpoint.  

What we really get people to think about is what does this mean in terms of your access to talent? What you do in this space, and today, with the young people coming out of the best schools in the world, where do they want to spend their time, their noble energy? They want to spend it in companies that are being seen increasingly of change in the world and a positive. The access to talent across every function you can imagine that Interface has access to right now is extraordinary.

The fourth thing we really try to get people to think about is once you have people on your team, how do you really align them and galvanize them around a common purpose? When you have bigger sense of purpose than just hitting your earnings per share goals, people show up and they want to be a part of something bigger.

Then this last one that you asked me about that we spent a good bit of time talking about is once you get all these things together, and that education, conversation and that mindset starts to shift, the explosion of new ideas and completely different ways of cutting old problems just starts exploding. That is a core source of competitive -- whether it's applied to reducing costs, or creating whole new lines of products -- that's what really drives the needle for business.

So thinking about sustainability in all five of those areas as a senior leader of a company, or as a whole team together, that seems to be really helpful for folks.