July 2, 2007

Interface picks up the pace as industry leader moving toward sustainability

In barely a dozen years, Interface, the Atlanta, Georgia-based carpet manufacturer, has reinvented itself as a sustainability leader both within its own industry and beyond. Claude Ouimet, the company's senior vice-president and general manager for Canada and Latin America, outlined the principles and practices that have enabled Interface to, among other things, reduce its global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 60% and its manufacturing waste sent to landfill by 70% within a decade.

Addressing a June 21 breakfast meeting of the Ontario Environment Industry Association (ONEIA), Ouimet said the company's sustainability mandate has come directly from its founder and chairman Ray Anderson, who in 1995 introduced a new vision for Interface, committing it to be "the first company to show the entire industrialized world what sustainability means in all its dimensions-people, process, products, places and profits-by 2020." Anderson recently backed up this vision with a commitment to make the firm's worldwide operations "climate neutral" by 2020, based on GHG reductions of 6.7% per year over the next 15 years.

The first step in the process of reinvention, said Ouimet, was to assess and measure the company's footprint. This led to the development of a seven-facet model for meeting its "Mission Zero" pledge to eliminate any negative impacts of Interface's operations on the environment by 2020.

These steps are described as: (1) benign emissions (i.e. reducing GHG emissions through energy efficiency and the purchase of carbon offsets; (2) renewable energy (all mills to use 100% renewables by 2020); (3) closed-loop operation, including the installation of $12-million worth of equipment to process post-consumer carpet products; (4) resource-efficient transportation; (5) elimination of waste through QUEST, an internal three-Rs program that draws upon the individual skills and talents of employees to find creative ways of reducing, re-using or recycling materials; (6) sensitivity hookup, the social facet of sustainability involving local, community-linked programs that vary with the specific location; and (7) redesign of commerce, to encompass a new, more co-operative relationship with customers.

Implementing sustainability requires a holistic view, said Ouimet, and takes into account every part of the company's operation, from the executive offices through marketing, sales, human resources, administration and research and development, as well as manufacturing. The benefits, however, are multiple, he noted, as sustainability builds value in traditional areas, among them cost reductions (including the avoided costs of not becoming sustainable), innovation, access to talent, engagement of employees and associates, and reputation.

Interface's sustainability commitment has, in fact, become a driving force for industry-leading innovations. For example, as a substitute for conventional adhesives, the company developed its patented TacTiles system which, in preventing slipping or shifting of carpet tiles, performs the same function as the chemical-containing substance it replaces. To eliminate the use of dyes in its carpet products, Interface developed a light-reflective yarn: carpet made with this yarn actually changes colour as the light striking it does throughout the day.

The company has also developed a number of bio-based carpet materials, including polyactic acid (PLA), a fibre derived from agricultural plant materials and wastes, and has introduced 27 products made from a blend of PLA and recycled nylon. Between 1996 and 2006, the company increased the amount of recycled and bio-based materials used in its products from 0.5% to more than 20%.

Ultimately, Ouimet concluded, "reinventing yourself is scary work, but committing to doing the right thing is powerfully liberating."

More information on Interface's sustainability programs and products is available on its dedicated Web site, www.interfacesustainability.com.

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