Waste Not, Want Not

Waste Not, Want Not

A decade ago, C & A Floorcoverings embarked on a journey that has since led to the concept of mining buildings instead of the earth. This approach has not only placed its environmental achievements front-and-center in an industry known for its fiercely competitive nature, it has also proved to be an enormously sound business strategy as well. By using waste material as the raw material for the commercial carpet it makes, CEO Mac Bridger says C & A has become “living proof” that what's good for the environment is also very good business sense. By Katie Sosnowchik

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than four billion pounds of carpet will go into landfills across America this year, accounting for about two percent of total landfill refuse. To get a visual picture, imagine rolling all that discarded carpet out in a six-foot-wide strip—then wrap it around the world 14 times.

These staggering statistics provide insight into the story of how and why one leading carpet mill, C & A Floorcoverings, has turned to “old” carpet as valuable feedstock in the manufacture of “new” carpet, specifically carpet tiles used in commercial buildings. Getting to this point, though, meant ending a 29-year history of producing virgin modular carpet tiles, a tough sell back in the early 1990s when C & A was part of a large textile conglomerate. But in 1997, the Dalton, GA-based commercial carpet division was sold in a leveraged-buyout transaction. Many of its strides in the environmental arena have occurred since then, as well as its whole-hearted embrace of the triple bottom line theory of sustainable development.

Infinity Initiative More than 10 years ago, C & A began to consider the possibility of recycling old carpet into new. The goal was to create a true closed-loop recycling system for floor covering. The process involves 10 quantifiable steps:  
• Must bring back any product made.
• Must use 100 percent of the recovered material.
• Must recycle material back into floor covering.
• Must have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.
• Must have at least equal performance to the original. • Must be price equivalent.
• Must have comparable aesthetics.
• Must capture all embodied energy.
• Must create products that are also 100 percent recyclable.
• Must have a commercially operational program.

“Public companies have so much pressure on them to produce quarterly earnings. In the years since we have been a private company, I have seen that it fosters more entrepreneurialism and innovation,” notes Bridger.

Other factors have also come into play. The carpet industry was an early target for environmental activists, not only because of the landfill issue—carpet is basically non-biodegradable—but also because of concerns regarding indoor air quality and the impact of carpet-related VOCs on the health and safety of building occupants. There was also increasing debate regarding the use and impact of PVC in commercial carpet.

The result is that the carpet industry was in a “hot seat,” so to speak. The situation was further complicated because of intense competition—a few large players vying for increased market share—and magnified by the fact that 80 percent of the U.S. carpet market is supplied by mills located within a 65-mile radius of Dalton.

Various carpet manufacturers have taken different routes in their environmental stewardship efforts. C & A turned to one of the associated problems—the landfill issue—to explore possible solutions. Today, through a closed loop process that reclaims and converts used carpet, C & A’s patented ER3™ 100-percent recycled carpet backing is now used on all of the modular carpet tile it sells. The face of the carpet tile also utilizes recycled content: between 31 to 50 percent dependent upon style. It carries the same price and a 15-year, non-prorated warranty as its previous virgin carpeting.

This translates into impressive numbers when you consider that C & A sells more than $200 million of carpet.

Since the leveraged buyout, C & A has acquired Monterey Carpets in California and Crossley Carpet Mills in Canada—the new “parent” is now known as the Tandus Group. (Bridger serves as chairman of the Tandus Group and president/CEO of C & A Floorcoverings.) And while these acquisitions have helped C & A further its financial objectives, they have not come without challenges. In fact, as C & A continues its acquisition course in the future, Bridger acknowledges that it has to “get better at integrating acquisitions into our sustainability matrix,” he says. “When we bring different cultures in, the fact of the matter is that they are not going to be at the same point we are after a decade of doing this.”

He also looks to the issue of identifying “the next best polymer” as a future challenge, as well as the investigation of renewable materials. “The whole concept of reinvention is important. If you continue to stay where you are, ultimately you will lose your competitive advantage,” Bridger says. “So we spend a lot of time at the senior level of our company thinking about what’s next.”

Bridger recently sat down with [email protected] to talk about C & A Floorcoverings’ journey into sustainability: where it has been, where it is today and where it will lead in the future.

When did C & A’s sustainability journey begin?

Bridger: The journey began—albeit unknowingly—in 1987 when we invented a product called Powerbond RS that eliminated wet glues in the installation process, which had a dramatic effect on indoor air quality. At the time, we viewed it as an installation system, but as we look back on it now, it was a wonderful environmental product as it solved indoor air quality issues associated with sick building syndrome and building-related illnesses.

Our focus on recycling started in the early 1990s, and it was principally driven by our customers. We host mill tours and educational events for end-users as well as design professionals and we began to hear a recurring theme: What were we doing with our product waste? What happens to our product after its useful life? Those questions led us to think that if we could come up with a solution to waste, then it would be something that our customers would want to buy and specify—therefore giving us a competitive advantage. That was when the light bulb turned on for us.

What are the unique environmental challenges for a carpet manufacturer?

One of the key things is technology. It’s one thing to say you want to be environmentally friendly, that you want to create a sustainable company with a sustainable product, but it’s clear the biggest challenge is technology. In our case, I think another challenge was convincing our parent company that it should invest millions of dollars in a concept that went against their core thinking. I think managing the parent was certainly a challenge—to get the approval to move forward.

Another challenge for us was in the area of culture—I am convinced you can’t be successful by sending out memos and making a speech. You really have to ingrain a culture of environmental responsibility throughout the organization. When you are dealing with hundreds of people, it’s a huge challenge. I am not going to suggest that every single person embraced the culture. But the key people—the people who were going to help us develop this technology to recycle carpet—they understood what we were doing and why we were doing it. We would never have been successful without that.

Shared Responsibility
C & A advocates the principle of a Shared Circle of Responsibility where specifiers, manufacturers and clients work together. The basic premise is simple: Designers need to specify, clients should buy and manufacturers are obligated to develop the right technology and environmentally responsible products. If this system fails, then a sustainable future will fail.

What steps were required in the transformation?

We felt we had to set short-term goals and achieve those goals. Then we set new goals. There is a utopian vision and a practical one. We chose the practical one—it’s great to say, “I want to have zero waste and zero emissions,” but how are you going to get there? I think success in our case was realized by setting realistic, attainable goals, celebrating victory when we made those small steps and then taking the next steps. The process we went through in developing the recycling technology took millions and millions of dollars—probably $12 to $15 million—and years of work.

Another challenge was the concept of being able to make an environmentally responsible product that the customer will buy. If we were to make carpet from paper, but it didn’t meet our customers’ performance requirements, they wouldn’t buy it and that really wouldn’t be very sustainable. So the challenge was to balance technology with products that perform—performance is life cycle, performance is how it looks, how it cleans. Professional designers are not going to specify a product that doesn’t meet certain requirements. Another element is cost. We said early in the process that we were not going to market with a green product and say, “It’s going to cost you $3 more because we have this investment and we have to get paid back.” That’s a pretty tough challenge to balance product performance and environmental responsibility and do it at the same cost as your virgin product.

We could have been in the marketplace in the early 1990s waving a flag because we had made a birdhouse or a park bench out of recycled carpet, but we simply weren’t going to do that until we were certain we had a commercially viable product. Our objective has always been to make carpet out of carpet.

Why is the carpet industry so competitive in its environmental efforts?

I think that increased awareness of environmental issues has made this a top-of-mind issue. Given that you have customers saying this is what they want, and the fact that there are a number of manufacturers vying for that business—it creates a competitive atmosphere. If you can’t commit to a customer that you have a product, then you can’t play.

This can also be a problem because, as a result, there’s been a lot of “greenwash” (companies that make claims that simply are not supportable). This is very damaging to the process—it creates a lot of confusion in the marketplace in the eyes of the building owners as well as design professionals. Competition is good in that it can create fundamental change. But if it’s not based on truth and integrity and accuracy, it can also create a lot of confusion.

Different manufacturers have taken various approaches to developing green products. Yours has been to mine buildings instead of natural resources. Why?

It really goes back to the genesis concept of creating our recycling technology. It’s a massive extrusion process—we affectionately call the equipment “Big Mo”—and Big Mo consumes lots of carpet. When we first starting scaling the machinery up, we would use our plant waste to meet the needs of production. But as we standardized all of our carpet tile—today all of our carpet has recycled content backing—our needs became greater and we had to have access to more raw materials—this is feedstock for us. So when we realized that we didn’t have the internal capacity to produce enough waste to feed this thing, we had to go outside and aggressively reclaim ours or our competitors’ material to feed our needs. And it made sense because it helps the customer, it fills our need for raw materials and it’s good for the environment.

How successful has C & A been in meeting goals?

Our strategy of taking a lot of shorter steps means we have been able to meet many goals. I don’t think in my lifetime we will meet the ultimate goal of sustainability. So we have not achieved all of our goals, but we have been successful, and we have done what many said could not be done, and it’s had a very dramatic impact on our company in terms of revenue and earnings. This is not about charity; it happens to be that what’s right for the environment is also very good business sense. I think we are living proof of that because we are doing something that’s very good for the environment, it has given us a competitive advantage in the market, it’s gained us new customers, and our company is growing at double-digit rates these last 10 years—in an industry that is typically at two or three percent. Our environmental programs and successes without question have contributed to that. By virtue of the fact that we use waste material for feedstock means we actually lower our raw material cost so we actually have a higher gross profit on every square yard of carpet that we sell.

Sustainability Laboratory
The path to sustainability, says C & A Floorcoverings, will best be achieved through the intellect, cooperation and dedication of a balanced cross section of society. With this in mind, C & A has created the Sustainability Laboratory, a group of individuals representing a broad spectrum of interests: environment and conservation, science and human health, education, architecture and new construction, social and cultural organizations, business, manufacturing, government and interior design. Its mission is to explore diverse perspectives and ideas concerning sustainability and its challenges. The Sustainability Laboratory is a forum for sharing, learning and developing answers. Its focus addresses issues of social equity, environmental accountability and economic performance.

How do you answer critics who lobby against any use of PVC?

There are two issues here. One is what we are doing and the other is how we view PVC. I will tell you, as I intellectually look at the PVC discussion, I think it’s important to say that PVC today—particularly in the way PVC resin is manufactured—has come light years since the 1960s. If you take the PVC process today, there is a tremendous amount of science that will directly contradict and refute what is being said by activists. This debate is a reasonable debate to have, it’s a fair debate to have. Unfortunately it’s an emotional issue because you are talking about health and safety issues. Some arguments are not only about PVC, but all plastics. Yet there is no other product that we know of that provides a 30-year useful life. When you talk about sustainability, where does life cycle enter into the concept? The technological merit of this product as a floor covering material is without reproach. But based on today’s technology, this is the best balance between reducing our environmental footprint and achieving performance.

When you listen to this debate, what you hear is people talking about the issues of production of PVC and the disposal of PVC. What we are doing is responsibly managing PVC. We can reclaim and recycle all of the PVC products ever made in the floor coverings business. We have the capacity to recycle all of this material so that it is never disposed of. Because of this vinyl technology, we can provide customers with high performance products that look better and last longer. We have zero manufacturing waste in our facilities—zero—not low, zero. We are using 100 percent of this material; none of it goes to landfill or is incinerated or waste-to-energy incinerated. We are using less energy today then we were before we were recycling. And it’s because of this technology. If you take this technology away, what are you going to replace it with? A product that has a three-year life cycle? How is that a positive environmental footprint? It’s just not. So I think we need to look at this issue on the basis of reality as opposed to emotion. But C & A is determined to be the first company in our industry to develop the next generation polymer that will provide an optimum environmental footprint and performance.

Have vendors come on board with environmental benefits?

Absolutely. In fact, some short stories illustrate that. When we first started this process, one of the first things we did was to evaluate all of the elements of our raw materials. You can’t make an environmentally responsible product by using environmentally irresponsible raw materials. So we began in the early ’90s to conduct vendor audits, which set very strict environmental parameters—we wanted the most benign raw materials. In one of our tests, we found a chemical level that did not meet our standards. So we turned the tanker truck around. That vendor today will tell you that our audit process made it a better company; it forced them to rethink and rework their processes to meet our criteria.

DuPont is another example. We have an exchange program with the DuPont Flooring Systems reclamation program—they have limited use for carpet tile in their recycling, so broadloom that we take in goes to their recycling; carpet tile that they take in comes to ours.

We are also working with DuPont and Universal Fibers on a fine denier program—a smaller fiber that allows us to make lower face weight products, which has a dramatic impact on resource usage. And we are working with other fiber companies, such as BASF, who is working with Bill McDonough on the Savant program. We are going to be the first carpet tile that uses the Savant fiber. So there’s lots of partners on the vendor side, lots of partners on the customer side. For example, Mutual of Omaha has sent back a million square feet of a competitor’s carpet tile. This technology gave us the ability to supply the California EPA with a 50-percent recycled content carpet for its headquarters in Sacramento—almost 100,000 yards. So the government market is very big for us. We work very closely with many Midwest states—Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa—on reclaiming materials.

How have you benefitted from involvement with NGOs?

Principally, it’s learning and benchmarking. We came into this as neophytes in the early ’90s, and we still view ourselves as a learning company, a learning organization. So, the more you are involved in these organizations—along with companies like McDonald’s that have strong positions on the environment—you learn from them. There’s also sharing, because we have done some pretty darn good things. When we can share our experiences, our successes and failures—that’s a benefit, too. We think that our association with various groups has been instrumental in our success.

Have you considered licensing the patents for the technology you hold?

We have talked about it and have even drafted some documents. We have concluded, however, that because of the competitive nature of our industry, we can’t quite see anyone willing to pay us for the technology. We have sent out some feelers, but haven’t gotten much of a reception.

Do you think that this might change?

I am hopeful that it might. I think it’s going to take more consolidation—a couple more rounds of consolidation and we’ll be there. There’s not that many big companies left—so if you combine two or more of these companies, then you will have something. But I don’t think anything will happen until then—it’s just too competitive.

You advocate a “shared circle of responsibility.” How successful have you been at raising awareness for this concept?

I think we have been successful, although it’s difficult to say how successful. It’s a very intangible thing. We talk about it a lot. We have put together some graphics that demonstrate it; we believe deeply that even if you have the perfect environmental product—if there ever is such a thing—if designers don’t support it with specifications and building owners don’t support it with purchasing those specs—it will all die because it is a circle of responsibility. It takes revenue and earnings to reinvest in technologies. So we very much are locked, joined at the hip in this matter.

If we go back to the discussion about integrity and greenwashing—if you have this circle of responsibility, then it comes down to the question: “Who really has what I want to specify?” There has got to be a baseline for designers and end-users to know what they are getting.

Manufacturers have to be accountable for what they are saying. To dazzle a designer to write a spec around something that is not real is wrong. So we have introduced two initiatives. First, we have worked the FTC Guides for Environmental Marketing Claims into our specifications. If you are not willing to conform to the Federal Trade Commission Guides, then there’s something wrong with the picture. So we are out aggressively promoting the use of FTC Guides as a standard, a baseline for accountability. The other thing we have done is go to a third-party firm to certify our claims. Scientific Certification Systems came in and did a complete audit of our entire process to verify and certify that what we claim about recycled content and recyclability is indeed true. We think this is important to bring accountability to the table in order to minimize the noise and confusion that currently exists.

Mining Buildings, Not The Earth - floore
Through its Floore carpet buy-back program, C & A purchases old vinyl-backed carpet and uses it as feedstock to produce its high-performance carpets. Besides the environ-mental benefits of less waste, reutilizing resources and reducing dependence on non-renewable resources, C & A’s customers benefit from the Floore program by turning disposal or landfill fees into revenue from old carpets. To date, approximately 60 million pounds of carpet have been diverted from the landfill and incineration because of C & A’s recycling program.

Tell us a little bit about the sustainability laboratory.

It goes back to when we started this long journey. It was clear to us that we did not have all the answers. We were in the carpet making business, and we knew we needed to bring together some of the brightest, most informed individuals to help us with the process. It was also important not just to bring together environmental scientists and environmental activists, but a broad cross section of people—people like Stuart Hart from academia, Bob Berkebile from professional architecture, Battelle representing science, as well as NGOs and business.

We also invited people from the social dimension. We didn’t want it to be a pure environmental group; we wanted it to focus on sustainability, which includes the social dimension as well as business acumen.

The purpose was really to create a sounding board. We wanted smart people to give us a report card. We said, “Let us show you what we’re doing, what our plans are, what we think is the right direction. Now you tell us how we are doing.” Although he did not take a formal seat on the laboratory, Bill McDonough has visited our facility and I remember him saying something to the effect that, “If everyone in industry was doing what you are doing, the world would be a better place.” So that’s what the laboratory is: it’s a council, it’s a sounding board. We always intended this to be a low-profile group; none of us wanted to make this a public relations event, but rather a true business guidance for us. We still have those relationships, exchanging e-mails and having dialogue and we are due to have a meeting in the near future. So the lab is about relationships and communication. These people have been very, very helpful to us in forming our views and still are.

Who are your mentors?

The Sustainability Lab certainly has had an impact. The outside person who has probably affected our thinking the most would be John Elkington. We have studied his writings, and we feel that the triple bottom line—the new business metric that goes beyond financial to include social and environmental considerations—best characterizes who we are: a company that has a sense of environmental responsibility; a company that knows we have to make money—we are in this for business, so it has to be good for business so that we can reinvest in new technologies. But very little is said about the third leg of that stool, which is the social area. I think we have done a tremendous amount over time in the area of social equity in our company and in the community. Early on we established an in-house GED program. On the surface, it may sound like everyone does that. But what most people do is give someone money and they go off to a community college after work and get their GED. But we have single mothers and people with church and community duties, so they can’t do that after work. Our program is different because when they punch in for an eight-hour shift, instead of going to a machine, they go to a classroom. The first four hours of their shift is spent getting an education. Since this was initiated in 1992 or ’93, we have given 126 GED diplomas. These people, many of whom are 50 years old or older, stand up oftentimes with tears running down their cheeks and say, “I never thought I could do this.” What this means to them personally and how it affects their children and their grandchildren—this is very powerful stuff—this is a helluva lot better than making carpet. That element of our company is hard to quantify, but it is one of the things that makes it a great company.

I also think Stuart Hart from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has been a big influence. He is such a wonderful balance of business thinking, social and environmental responsibility. Stuart Hart is leading the way so that future business leaders will be following the triple bottom line as the new business metric for economic, social and environmental responsibility.

Another industry leader who I admire greatly because I have seen what he is trying to do is Chad Holliday of DuPont. He is a remarkable guy with an impossible job but I think he will get it done. I look up to him not because he is a titan of industry, but because he is committed to change for the betterment of mankind.

“Competition is good in that it can create fundamental change. But if it’s not based on truth and integrity and accuracy, it can also create a lot of confusion.” - Mac Bridger

What’s next on the agenda?

There’s some short- and some long-term challenges. First of all, for the last year we have been on the cusp of introducing a recycled-content cushion roll product. Taking waste carpet and making it into cushion is a very difficult thing to do because not only do you have vinyl in that mix, but you have nylon and all this other stuff that got dumped into the mix when you were recycling it. For the last two years we have made great strides, and I think by the end of this year we will be ready to launch. Which then will mean that 100 percent of all the products we make are made with recycled materials. And that is a very cool thing. But again, we are not going to introduce this product until it meets all of our performance requirements and we can sell it at the same price as our virgin product. I am not going to ask our customers to pay for our R & D.

Number two in the short-term is collection. Collection logistics are a nightmare. I can envision us having regional material recovery facilities, either through acquisition or joint venture or partnership, that would allow customers to send waste to a central location, have it initially processed and then shipped to Dalton for final processing. We have to bring more efficiency into the process, not only for cost reasons. From an environmental standpoint, it’s a very inefficient process with lots of energy being used and trucks going around—there has got to be a better way to do this. I think it needs to be in collaboration with other product manufacturers, maybe even other carpet manufacturers.

Are you where you wanted to be 10 years ago?

In 1992, when we went into this thing, we were almost delusional. It’s like sitting here saying that we’re going to take a vacation on the moon 10 years from now. You think it would be nice, but you also think there’s no way you’re going to get there. So that is the feeling we had in 1992, but we had a steadfast determination. However, I don’t think in our wildest imagination we thought that in 2002, 100 percent of our tile would be recycled content and that we’re almost ready to launch recycled content cushion. We’re way further ahead, for sure. It’s been a very exciting journey, but a very important part of our message is that we’re not done; we’ve still got a lot to accomplish. I think one of the next great areas is in the social responsibility arena—not only the social impact of the community you operate in and for the employees who work in your plant, but also the impact of your product on the human spirit and quality of life.

What’s important to remember is that this is a journey, not a destination. What this company is doing now is really building a legacy for the future.