A story of an eco-epiphany.
IMAGINE THAT YOU are sixty years old. The company you founded when you were thirty-eight is now twenty-one plus years old. Amazingly it survived start-up from absolute scratch – a greenfield start-up from just an idea for a new product. You remember vividly that day in your start-up year, in the teeth of a recession, when your factory had been built and equipped, your initial workforce hired and trained, raw materials bought and paid for, products developed … and there was not a single order on the books. You learned that day, indelibly, the value of the customer – the source of the next order, the next heartbeat, without which everything would be lost.
But, now, in your sixty-first year, the business has succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. At age twenty-one, it is a public company, doing business in 100 countries, with manufacturing on four continents. It has come through three major recessions, including that start-up recession, and is on its third leg-up. Sales are approaching and will soon exceed a billion dollars a year. It, and you, are successful by anybody’s definition of success.
Furthermore, you have put a succession plan into effect. The next generation of management is in place and battle-tested, having brought your company through the recent recession. At age sixty, where do your thoughts turn? To retirement in the mountains, to the seashore? To chasing a little white ball? To travel and leisure?
How then would you, in this position, have reacted if you had begun to hear through your sales force a strange, new question from your customers, those very customers to whom you had learned to listen very carefully twenty years before, looking at that empty order book? The question, “What is Interface doing for the environment?” How would you have responded if you had begun to hear about requests for bid quotations that asked your company to state its environmental policies when it competed for business? What would you have said if a report had come to you through one of your top sales managers that a certain environmental consultant to a certain major customer had said, “Interface just doesn’t get it!”?
Do you know what I said? “Interface doesn’t get what?” – rather confirming the consultant’s comment.
This is where I found myself in 1994. My company, Interface Inc., was the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet, a product whose technology we had introduced to the US market. Entrepreneur? Yes. Capitalist? Yes.
Environmentalist? Never gave it a thought.
A task force convenes to address the questions coming from our customers, and they ask me to speak about my environmental vision. I reluctantly agree, and the date is set: 31st August 1994. Come the middle of August, I don’t have a clue what to say, but I know “Comply” is not a vision. I am sweating.
At that very moment, a book appears on my desk. It has come by a circuitous route. A young woman in Seattle, working for the State of Washington’s Environmental Protection Department, hears a guy speak, likes what he has to say and buys his book. After reading it she sends it to her mother, a sales manager for a carpet tile company who has had to endure and relay the message, “Interface just doesn’t get it.” And who has had to choke on her CEO’s response, “Interface doesn’t get what?” The book is about “what”; she sends it to her CEO and it lands on my desk at that propitious moment. It is entitled The Ecology of Commerce. Its author is Paul Hawken. I’ve never heard of him.
This was the defining moment in what I’ve called my “Mid-Course Correction”. I read Hawken’s book and was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment – the industrial system of which I and my ‘successful’ company were an integral part. A new definition of success flooded my consciousness, and a latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept.
Hawken made the central point of his book in three parts: 1) The living systems and the life-support systems of Earth are in decline; we are degrading the biosphere which contains and supports all life. 2) The biggest culprit in this decline is the industrial system – the linear, take-make-waste industrial system, driven by fossil-fuel-derived energy. 3) The only institution on Earth that is large enough, powerful enough, wealthy enough, pervasive enough, and influential enough to lead humankind out of the mess it is making for itself is the same institution that is doing the most damage: the institution of business and industry – my institution.
I took that message to heart and made that speech, drawing shamelessly on Hawken’s materials. I challenged that tiny gathering of sixteen or seventeen people to lead our company to sustainability – which we defined as eventually operating our petro-intensive company in such a way as to take nothing from the Earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable – not another fresh drop of oil – and to do no harm to the biosphere.
I stunned that little group and shocked myself with this challenge, and found for myself a whole new purpose in life – in my sixty-first year. I simply said, “Who will lead? Unless somebody leads, nobody will. Why not us?”
For twelve years now, we have been on this mission; we call it “climbing Mt. Sustainability”, a mountain higher than Everest, to meet at the point at the top that symbolises zero footprint – zero environmental impact. Sustainable: taking nothing, doing no harm.
The amazing thing is that it has been incredibly good for business! What started out as the right thing to do quickly became clearly the smart thing as well. We are leaner; our costs are down, not up. Cost savings from eliminating waste alone, the first face of the mountain, have been nearly $300 million cumulatively – dispelling the myth that sustainability costs and exposing the false choice between economy and environment. Our products are better than they have ever been, because sustainability has proved to be an unimagined source of inspiration and innovation. Our people are galvanised around a higher purpose. To round out the business case, the goodwill of the marketplace has been astounding! No amount of advertising could have generated as much, or contributed as much to winning business.
During the five years between 2000 and 2005, those four advantages – costs, products, people, goodwill – were the salvation of Interface during a recession that saw our primary marketplace shrink by 38% from peak to trough. As a heavily leveraged company with over $400 million of debt, we might not have made it without the sustainability initiative and the support it engendered from our customers. This revised definition of success – this new paradigm – has a name: “Doing well by doing good”. It is a better way to bigger profits.
Our footprint has been reduced by an estimated 40%. The goal remains 100%: zero footprint. Today this reduced environmental footprint is reflected in every single product we make anywhere in the world – not one here and one there. We simply do not believe a green product can be produced by a ‘brown’ company. Our customers can now buy ‘Climate Neutral’ carpet, meaning no net contribution to global warming throughout its life cycle, with independent, third-party verification. We call it ‘Cool Carpet®.’
The target for zero footprint, the top of Mt. Sustainability, is 2020. I hope to see the view from the top of the mountain. I think it will be beautiful beyond words.
I was a plunderer of Earth and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind.
Our products are better than they have ever been, because sustainability has proved to be an unimagined source of inspiration and innovation.
We do not believe a green product can be produced by a ‘brown’ company.