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Carpet giant Interface shares pointers on being a green innovator

<p>Sustainable modular carpet company reveals how it reduced emissions, energy usage and waste.</p>

What would you do with tons of discarded fishing nets that clutter the ocean and beaches near fishing towns and villages?

If you were Interface, the international modular carpet manufacturer and industry leader in sustainability, you would turn those nets into carpet tiles -- and provide the fishermen and their families with income while salvaging the debris.

Interface partnered with a fishing community in the Philippines in a pilot program to mark World Oceans Day in June this year. It has also researched various ways in which to increase the recycled content in its carpets, which on average have 40 percent of recycled fiber or yarn. Some products are made up of 100 percent recycled content.

The company released its annual EcoMetrics study in August this year, a report that tracks its advancements in sustainability. The term EcoMetrics was coined by Interface’s visionary founder Ray Anderson when he put the company on the path to sustainability in 1994.

Since then, the company has studied processes at its manufacturing plants worldwide -- all of which it owns -- to see how much material and energy they consume and what comes out in the form of waste.

Interface conducts its research with three main goals in mind: footprint reduction, product innovation and inspired culture (which focuses on how much time and initiative employees commit to philanthropy and volunteering).

Among its milestones, it has reduced the amount of energy it takes to produce a square foot of carpet -- also known as energy intensity -- by nearly 50 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 30 percent, and water usage and landfill waste have been cut by 80 percent since 1996.

It has also shifted to renewable energy sources for one-third of its energy needs and initiated ReEntry, a process that takes back old carpet and recycles it into new raw material. ReEntry diverted 25 million pounds of carpets from landfills in 2011 alone.

Erin Meezan, vice president of sustainability at Interface, spoke to GreenBiz about how the company achieved these milestones and pointers that others can use.

Photo of end-of-life carpet recycled into pellets through ReEntry courtesy of Interface

Rather than one mega project, Meezan says it was a series of smaller projects that added up to the reductions in greenhouse gases.

"Each of our factories has a range of energy efficiency projects," she said. "One plant in the U.S. tapped into a local landfill. We use a lot of heat to melt things and dry things, so the projects involve better procedures, drying at lower temperatures."

Meezan recounted a success story in a factory in Holland where employees found a more efficient way to cut the tile. The automated process was faster, helped reduce waste and increase efficiency.

Interface starts its process by measuring how much emissions are produced by its plants and reporting it to the public.

"You need to know what your footprint is, and making it public will drive internal dialogue and discussions with other stakeholders. Second, analyze total spend on energy and what that translates into in terms of greenhouse gases," Meezan said.

On using more recycled material

To increase the recycled content in its products, Interface worked on understanding the basic process and how to improve it.  Then, it sat down with two fiber suppliers -- one of them which supplied 80 percent of Interface's fiber needs and another which supplied the balance -- to share what it had learned. The company asked suppliers if they would support the initiative.

As it turns out, the company that supplied 20 percent of its fiber was enthusiastic and took a gamble on the pilot program. As a result of this decision several years ago, that supplier provides the majority of Interface's fiber whereas the other vendors’ business has dropped significantly.

The ReEntry initiative does not offer a buyback or cash incentive for customers to bring old carpet back to the company, but they can accrue benefits for participation. Typically, carpet installers are the ones who haul away old carpet and they must pay a disposal fee for discarding old carpet.

With ReEntry, installers can avoid these charges. Interface is also working with state and local governments to institute a ban on sending carpets to landfill.

"Some stuff we just can't recycle, so sometimes we donate carpet that's still usable. For the most part everything goes into reclamation. The old carpet is a feed source for us," Meezan said.

As an industry, carpet manufacturers are not huge water users in comparison to other industries. But to reduce water usage, Interface got rid of old dyeing processes and began doing things differently.

"The important point here is not just the numbers [by which the company reduced its usage] but the courage that our internal folks had to put this on the table and suggest changes," she said, laughing.

Customers valuing sustainability

One of the things that frustrates Interface's product development professionals is that there are so many nice yarns made from bio-based materials, but they don't perform well. The company wants to make sure that it's not only sustainable, but that it also performs well and looks beautiful.

Yet Meezan says that the company's customers do value of environmentally friendly products despite a price difference -- especially the architects and designers she credits for their forward-thinking mindsets.

After all, she reflected, it was a customer who triggered the focus on sustainability.

"We started out on this path in 1994 when a customer asked us what we were doing about the environment," Meezan said. "A sales person gave feedback on it, and it filtered back to our founder."

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