Elephants and North Stars: 4 steps to meet sustainability goals

Radical Industrialists

Elephants and North Stars: 4 steps to meet sustainability goals

If you’ve succeeded in getting your company to set some ambitious public goals around sustainability, maybe even some big, hairy, audacious, North Star-type goals like “zero waste” or “100 percent renewable energy,” you may be asking, “What now?” Most sustainability reporting and management systems, including ISO 14001 and GRI, require some kind of goal setting, but certainly don’t require them to be bold or transformational. You could hire a sustainability strategy consultant, but in case that’s not in your budget, we humbly offer four lessons from Interface’s journey up Mount Sustainability.

Interface’s North Star goal is today known as Mission Zero, a refinement of Ray Anderson’s original “7 Fronts of Mt. Sustainability” into a single public commitment to eliminate by 2020 any negative impact we may have on the environment. North Star goals do not need to have a specific deadline to drive impressive results, as Walmart’s 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste goals have shown. But giving your North Star a deadline certainly lights a fire under the process of figuring out how to get from here to there. We have a long way to go before 2020, but we will presume to share what has worked so far.

1. Find the elephant in the room

“I still remember the year you hung the giant elephant over your booth.” Visitors to our 2012 Greenbuild tradeshow booth were still talking about our booth from three years ago, when we asked the question, “What’s the elephant in the room for a tradeshow full of green product manufacturers?” The answer is the single biggest driver of our company’s unsustainability, and Anderson identified in the earliest days of his epiphany: dependence on oil.

Anderson often described the carpet industry as so petro-intensive that it was practically an extension of the oil industry. The various plastics and chemicals in carpet came almost entirely from oil feedstocks. Add to this the oil burned to fuel the extraction, refining, processing, shipping and manufacturing of these materials and we’re neck-deep in the black stuff. Our message that year boiled down to two words: “Off Oil,” a campaign within the larger Mission Zero commitment, focused on eliminating the single biggest driver of our company’s negative environmental impact.

What’s your elephant? What is the biggest thing your company must address, however difficult, if you are serious about your sustainability goals? Doing a life cycle environmental footprint analysis of your company can be a useful tool for answering this question. This kind of analysis showed us that nothing affects our footprint like our raw materials (especially virgin nylon). Similarly, footprint analysis will show a retailer that their supply chain is what matters. For an automaker, the elephant will be fleet fuel efficiency. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on anything else in sustainability, but it does mean that everything else will be less meaningful if you’re ignoring the elephant in your room.

2. Build the North Star into the business

The key thing that distinguishes early corporate social responsibility efforts from the modern movement toward sustainable business is whether you have a business strategy that links sustainability progress with increasing profitability. The sustainability business case leads directly to incremental improvements in efficiency, but the case for North Star goals may require a bit more creativity and vision.

For our Off Oil goal, we clarified five strategies that we have been driving to eliminate dependence on the elephant:

  1. Use less energy.
  2. Use less material.
  3. Make it last.
  4. Turn carpet backing into carpet backing.
  5. Turn carpet fiber into carpet fiber.

The first three align naturally with reducing costs, but the last two run into the market reality that recycled materials usually cost more (and that most customers won’t pay more). Raw materials are not just the biggest driver of our footprint, they are also our biggest cost, so any increase in the unit cost of materials has serious implications. In the absence of simple cost reductions or efficiency gains, we had to challenge some basic assumptions.

In the late 1990s, Anderson asked that evaluations of proposed investments in recycling technologies for carpet fiber and backing include scenario analysis with oil at $100 per barrel (when in fact it was closer to $30). This foresight and these investments proved themselves when the price of oil spiked past $100 per barrel several times over the next decade.

Today, the barrel price hovers in the $90-plus range, but the business strategy for our Off Oil commitment doesn’t depend on the short-term price of oil; it is a proven strategy for eliminating volatility in our raw material prices. With 44 percent of our materials now sourced from rapidly renewable or recycled materials, we have passed along far fewer price increases to our customers during oil spikes than we would have in our more oil-dependent days. In the longer term, Off Oil prepares us for the day when the world’s remaining oil will be reserved for more important things than making carpet tiles.

3. Align key business partners with your North Star

Getting serious about pursuing your North Star goal means finding key partners who want to build their business by joining the journey. Using the lenses of business opportunity (who stands to gain by helping you implement the strategy) and footprint (who needs to be on board to tackle the elephant) shows you where to look for partners.

Life cycle assessment showed us that virgin nylon production to make carpet yarn from oil drove the footprint of our entire business, but we don’t make nylon. When we first put out the challenge to our yarn suppliers in the late '90s to provide recycled nylon, we were told that it was cost prohibitive and/or technically impossible. We dangled the carrot of an increased share of our business for years before we saw substantial progress, but today we have suppliers trying to out-recycle each other, and we make about 40 percent of U.S. products on 100 percent recycled nylon (with at least 25 percent post-consumer content). Our investments in carpet recycling have also made us a key raw materials supplier (of post-consumer carpet fluff) to our yarn suppliers, which provides additional leverage to maintain stable yarn prices and steadily increase post-consumer content.

4. Measure and report transparently along the way

No North Star goal is credible if you don’t have some way to measure it and share your progress. Setting short-term goals with actual deadlines (e.g., 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2015) to complement a more aspirational and inspirational goal helps ground your North Star. A near-term goal will help make your company publicly accountable for progress toward the North Star and make clear the units in which this progress will be measured.

Our 2020 Mission Zero and Off Oil commitments, which started out sounding aspirational, now look more and more like short-term goals. (Where did the time go?) But the reporting has been consistent and transparent since our first sustainability report in 1997. Our EcoMetrics (energy use, renewables, GHG, waste, water use and recycled/renewable materials) look extremely basic compared to the rigors of modern GRI reporting, but they will still tell you where we stand. If 2020 arrives and our products are still made with virgin petrochemicals and our manufacturing and shipping are still fueled by petrochemicals, we will have missed our deadline — and everyone will know it.

Today, using our best backing and yarn systems, our U.S. products contain only 5 to 6 percent petroleum-derived ingredients, but addressing the rest of our products and replacing oil as a fuel will keep us more than busy these next few years. Some people say it will take a miracle, but as Interface pioneer Jim Hartzfeld always reminded us, “it took us five or six miracles to get this far, so we’ve always been in the miracle business.”

Are you on the edge of your seat yet? Wondering how it all turns out? That’s the compelling magic of a North Star goal. Set your own and see where it takes you.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group