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No more funding forests in Cambodia: Interface is ending offsets to go carbon-negative

The carpet company says its carbon-negative manufacturing means it can stop buying CO2 credits.

Instead of investing in offsets, Interface is looking to innovations internally and in its supply chain.

Instead of investing in offsets, Interface is looking to innovations internally and in its supply chain. Credit: Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz

Interface, a maker of technically innovative commercial carpet tiling, will stop paying for carbon offsets — which typically fund forest projects in developing countries — to reduce the impact of its greenhouse gas emissions. 

Instead, starting in 2025, Interface will direct what it used to spend on offsets toward exploring manufacturing with raw materials that remove or store carbon, in hopes of becoming carbon-negative by 2040 — a goal it set in 2018. It will also boost its circular-economy processes. 

Interface had previously retired 463,000 million metric tons of CO2 offsets in 2022. That accounted for up to $2 million of its annual spending. 

In 2020, however, Interface developed a carbon-negative carpet tile. The product uses an ingredient that Global Head of Sustainability Liz Minné said sequesters carbon both before and during its use. She declined to name the ingredient. 

"That [unnamed] material is so carbon-negative that it makes up for all of the other materials that are in there, as well as the whole process of making it," Minné said.

Interface’s CQuest carpet tiles use "plant-based oils and resins with recycled limestone into a bio-composite," according to an article in Wired.

"I think it's such an exciting time because so much is changing in terms of our raw material opportunities," Minné said. "And that's another reason why we're really thinking about this pivot. So if we can find a product that we can substitute for what was previously a petrochemical product, while ensuring that it also meets our sustainability requirements and our design requirements and all of those checkboxes, then that's the win-win-win we're looking for."

The turn away from offsets

The new strategy puts Interface in a small club of companies, including Microsoft, that have moved away from offsets.

By May, the $1 billion flooring brand will discontinue its carbon credit programs, which have supported third-party-verified efforts in Kenya, the Congo and Cambodia.

We're just at a point where we know that we can do it without needing offsets.

Since reaching carbon neutrality in 2022, in part via offsetting, the Atlanta company has sought to halve its remaining greenhouse gas emissions.

Offsets have become controversial in the sustainability world because they allow companies to continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere as long as they offset that with enough forestry or technology to sequester an equal or greater amount of carbon. The offsets they buy often turn out to be bogus, faulty or ineffective, critics say.

For that reason, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which validates companies’ progress toward sustainability, had historically refused to count offsets toward companies' net-zero goals. In April SBTi made an about-face to allow offsets to be used — triggering an internal staff mutiny. SBTi will continue to validate Interface’s decarbonization progress.

Setting standards

The 51-year-old flooring maker has been a sustainability standard-setter since its legendary founder, the late Ray Anderson, had an epiphany in the 1990s about the harm his industry was inflicting upon the planet. 

In 2016, Interface began its "Climate Take Back" campaign, which remains active, to reverse global warming. Its four goals include aiming for zero negative environmental impact, treating carbon as a resource rather than an "enemy," transforming industry and helping the biosphere to cool the planet.

In 2019, Interface said it had officially reached its "Mission Zero" goal — having no net-negative planetary impact — a year earlier than planned. The company’s carpet carbon footprint has dropped by 82 percent since it began measuring its output in the 1990s, but it was still using offsets to balance the remaining emissions.  

"I wouldn't say that we're coming out and saying we're against offsets as a whole," Minné said. "We're just at a point where we know that we can do it without needing offsets. But in order to do that, we're going to need to accelerate within our own business — and with our whole value chain, really our supply chain — and our customers to reach our goals."

"We’re feeling that regardless of what the standards say, we need to take it to the next level," Minné said. "And now that we know that we can do it, we're going to lean into that."

Innovating in materials and manufacturing

Interface will focus on the following areas to drive emissions below zero:

  • The product innovation team will be looking at a wide range of materials, which may include algae, corn and waste carbon dioxide, Minné said.
  • Expanding the use of recycled materials. Interface’s tiles currently include 66 percent recycled content. Its yarn is 84 percent recycled. Interface’s luxury vinyl tile is 39 percent recycled and its rubber flooring has a 9 percent recycled and biobased-ingredient mix.
  • Interface’s internal Global Sustainability Council gathers employees from nine global offices, with the aim of finding opportunities to expand circularity. 
  • Expanding product reuse and experimenting with "carpeting as a service," whereby Interface keeps ownership of the product while the consumer uses the flooring. "We can't get there unless we have a more circular system," Minné said.
    How Interface plans to be carbon negative by 2040.

    How Interface plans to be carbon negative by 2040. Credit: Interface

Addressing Scope 3

And then there is Scope 3 — the difficult-to-abate-emissions that come from suppliers and customers’ use and disposal of products, which aren’t directly controlled by Interface.

Roughly 50 percent of Interface’s Scope 3 emissions come from its supply chain and 30 percent from the use of its products. Scope 3 emissions are the source of most of what it previously paid to offset.

The carbon-negative objective for 2040 includes developing strategies to understand its "ripple effect" in the supply chain, as well as developing partnerships with vendors and encouraging suppliers to reduce emissions.

The company intends to expand the use of low- and negative-carbon materials from existing and new suppliers. 

"We're maybe asking for more recycled content or biobased materials," Minné said. "We're looking for new suppliers who might have these innovative materials that we might be able to substitute in… so that we can further reduce our impacts that way. It's sort of a mix of all things so that we can get the best possible solution."

"We want to challenge ourselves and others to become carbon negative, enterprise wide, without offsets," CEO Laurel Hurd said in a press release. "We hope to continue to inspire industry to join us to make an even bigger impact through our collective action focused on absolute carbon reduction."

[Want to learn more about how to accelerate the transition to a circular economy? Check out Circularity 24 — the leading circular economy event — taking place May 22-24 in Chicago.]

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