10 Things I've Learned About Making Sustainability a Core Value

10 Things I've Learned About Making Sustainability a Core Value

As president and chief executive officer of Interface, Inc. since July 2001, I am committed to ensuring that each Interface business unit is a high-performing asset that strives toward sustainability in all dimensions - people, product, place, process and profits.

During my tenure, Interface has made significant strides in reducing its footprint and developing innovative solutions to make progress towards its ambitious sustainability goals - most notably the company has saved $433 million in waste costs, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 44 percent in absolute tons, reduced energy used to manufacture products by 43 percent and has increased its use of renewable energy to 30 percent of global energy use.

In honor of GreenBiz's 10th anniversary, "The Power of 10," I'd like to offer some perspective on the things that were important in launching and maintaining the company's focus on its sustainability goals.

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1) Have a bold vision. This should be bold enough to be scary and comprehensive enough that you're not sure how to get there. Setting an aggressive goal can inspire employees, can spark innovative thinking and will drive progress way beyond where incremental goals ever could. Companies that strive for 10 percent reductions end up achieving 10 percent reductions. Interface has reduced GHG emissions (44 percent), water use (80 percent), waste to landfill (80 percent) and energy use (43 percent), all way beyond what we envisioned years ago because we set a very scary goal - zero footprint. 

2) Find a way to visualize sustainability to make it real. To many people, in their business and personal lives, sustainability can be a gray area seeking definition -- 15 years ago, Interface's founder, Ray Anderson, told employees the journey to become a sustainable business would be like climbing “a mountain higher than Everest.” Mount Sustainability has clarified our thinking on the enormity of our task, but also helped us understand and communicate this complex journey. Mt. Sustainability has entered the lexicon at Interface now, in training to new employees and in describing our path to customers and stakeholders. Along the way we developed other ways to make sustainability real in the context of our operations  -- the “seven fronts” of Mt. Sustainability to describe the key places where we must address sustainability in our operations like energy, emissions, waste and material flows. 

3) What gets measured gets managed. I can't stress enough the importance of starting to measure where you are to develop your own baseline  -- start with your wastes, raw materials, energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions and transportation. Then move on using life cycle assessment to look at the holistic impacts of your business. Don't forget to measure critical indicators of your culture like diversity and employee engagement. All of these metrics are critical to identify the biggest areas for improvement, provide a basis to make intelligent decisions and allow you to track progress. A company should not communicate any messages on sustainability until it knows exactly where it is and is willing to share these metrics publicly. 

4) Leadership from the top. Senior management support for sustainability goals is critical to the success of any initiative. It is even better when the most senior leaders in the company are the advocates. Without it, your managers face a long and frustrating battle. At Interface the effort was championed by our founder and chairman. He not only set the vision, but got incredibly involved in the details. He became their global cheerleader for the effort internally  -- visiting associates, investors and customers to share his vision and discuss the benefits of sustainability for Interface and them  -- and it made a huge difference. 

5) Do something  -- anything. Lots of companies are stuck because they do not know where to start. They're looking for a roadmap to sustainability. It is far simpler than that: Start by doing something, something small, something different. Years ago, when our carpet designers found themselves in this place  -- not knowing where to start, but knowing they needed to do something  -- they acted. They started by using less nylon in the carpet products and found that they performed the same. Then, they subtracted a little more and kept going. Through re-engineering product specifications they found they could subtract a lot of nylon resulting in less costs, less waste and less energy usage without changing the way the product performs. A simple step that made big changes. 

6) Bring outside perspective inside. Or don't be foolish enough to think you have all the answers. Early in our journey, Interface knew we couldn't tackle sustainability alone. Sustainability was not as commonly understood as it is today; we needed help to understand sustainability and what it meant to us. We sought the advice of authors, activists, scientists, entrepreneurs and other thought leaders whose progressive thinking would help us map our journey. Those whose thinking, innovation and inspiration we sought eventually came to be our “EcoDream Team,” and we still rely on their counsel today. 

7) Cultivate a different culture; know that you will fail and be prepared for that. In order to really shift the way a company acts, new technologies and greener products are not the answer; new thinking is also required. New thinking at all levels, from product designers to manufacturing associates to sales and marketing members. To inspire this new thinking, we found you had to create a culture where new ideas could flourish and theories could be tested, and fail if necessary, without repercussions. We did this by team training, sustainability education and programs where the solutions to sustainability challenges came from all levels from the organization. 

8) Thinking weird is okay. New ideas and processes seem weird at first and are not as appealing as the status quo. But, we found that some of our weirdest ideas became the most powerful and propelled us toward innovative solutions to sustainability that we never would have found thinking conventionally. Years ago, our American business asked designers to go out into the forest to observe how nature makes a floor. Using the principles of biomimicry, asking nature how to solve a problem, they observed that no components of a forest floor were identical -- it was beautiful, but random. A weird idea took root: What if carpet tiles were random as well, not the same, identical tiles that we had been designing and making for years? Fast forward to one of the company's best selling products that invented a new category of carpet tiles, produced faster installation and created less waste in their manufacture. 

9) Take leaps of faith - the marketplace will reward you for doing the right thing. If you are a company really focused on sustainability, at some point, you will need to take a leap of faith  -- faith that your long term investment in sustainability will make sense for the company and its stakeholders, in addition to being the right thing to do. As advanced as we have become in our thinking about the business case for sustainability, there are still moments when you will have to take this leap. Over the course of our 15 years pursuing sustainability, we've taken several leaps and most of them have proven to be good decisions. 

10) Don't underestimate your customers. We started on our path very early after a customer asked, “What is your company doing for the environment?” Our customers led us on this path of exploration toward sustainability by asking that first question we could not answer. We also don't underestimate our customers in terms of their need for information on sustainability, and we strive to provide as much as we can and be as transparent as possible -- most recently becoming the first to release Environmental Product Declarations -- essentially the recipe for our products. 

Bonus Lesson: Tell your story, don't "market" it. Having worked on our sustainability goals for so long, we have found that the most powerful messages are the simple stories of the real progress and the changes we're making every day at Interface. Our founder and chairman, Ray Anderson, now 75 years old, will tell his story, our story, to anyone who will listen about what changed his mind, how he changed our company and how it is reflected in everything we do. It is in continuing to share our story that we hope to in some small way to continue to encourage our customers, our suppliers and indeed other companies well beyond textile manufacturing to think differently and to proactively decide to join us on the journey up to the top of Mount Sustainability. 

Dan Hendrix is Interface, Inc.'s president and chief executive officer.