Can business models act as carbon sinks to reach net-zero?

To kickstart edie's Net-Zero November, carpet manufacturer Interface's head of sustainability Jon Khoo reflects on the company's own ambitious Climate Take Back strategy, as well as discussing how business mindsets and models can "act like carbon sinks" to transform corporates into zero-impact organisations.

Can business models act as carbon sinks to reach net-zero?

Khoo outlined how Interface was aiming to have zero impact through its products and operations

A little over a year ago, global carpet manufacturer and sustainability leader Interface revealed that it had succeeded the environmental ambitions of its Mission Zero strategy one year ahead of its 2020 timeframe.

In its final years, the strategy focused on reducing impact in three key areas of the business: factories, products and suppliers. Over the last 26 years, Interface has recorded a 74% reduction in the carbon footprint of carpet tile products, a 96% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, sourced 75% renewable electricity globally, reduced water use per unit of production by 89% globally and recorded a 92% reduction in waste to landfill across the global business. In short, the company is in the vanguard of corporate sustainability leadership.

Interface is now forging ahead with its Climate Take Back strategy, which is also filled to the brim with ambitious actions. It focuses on “reversing global warming and rethinking carbon as a resource”, transforming dispersed materials into “products and goodness” and creating supply chains that benefit all life and “factories that are like forests”. Interface has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2040.

While progress is being made against this ambition, Interface’s Jon Khoo realises that it will require a lot of reimagining of the status quo for the business, and others, to transform into corporates that can act as a vessel for the net-zero transition.

“When we talk about net-zero, we’ve never really focused just on energy,” Khoo said. “It has been about the negative impact we were having as a whole, including the products we make. A lot of the carbon-neutral claims you see are focused on operational energy, and depending on what they do and what they make that might be a fair thing.

“But, if you want to have net-zero impact, you need to figure out what your impact is, where it sits in the value chain and have a wide scope and understanding of it. From there you can start prioritising.”

Interface created its Mission Zero strategy based on Founder Ray Anderson’s famous “spear in the chest moment” in 1994 where he realised business could be viewed as plunderers of the planet. The strategy was unprecedented in its scope at the time and still holds its ambitious credentials in the modern era of sustainable business.

Having a founder who was not just aware of the climate and ecological crises, but was actively willing to respond to it has been crucial in embedding this scale of ambition into the company, and moving forward this business mindset will need to be replicated across all sectors, Khoo notes.

Interface, of course, isn’t the only corporate that has rolled out a new sustainability strategy that pledges to tackle the climate crisis on an unparalleled scope. At the start of 2020, Microsoft unveiled a bold plan to reduce its carbon impact to below net-zero by 2030, with an additional goal of removing carbon from the atmosphere that the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975. Elsewhere, Brewdog’s Make Earth Great Again strategy – timely given the importance of the US Election on the global climate movement – has seen the brewer purchase more than 2000 acres of farmland north of Loch Lomond. The land will be used to plant one million trees as part of a “double carbon negative” ambition.

There is a commonality with the targets issued by Interface, Brewdog, Microsoft, and indeed, a few others. They look beyond net-zero. They are the shining examples of how some corporations are accounting for more than just their own impacts; they realise that historic actions and value chain associations have all contributed to the climate crisis.

This isn’t understating the net-zero movement. The need to reach net-zero emissions, at a corporate, national and global level are, essentially, a requirement if the world is to alleviate the worst climate impacts and limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5C, as stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But net-zero can be viewed as eliminating a company or nation’s contribution to climate change, albeit through a necessary offsetting process. There is a danger that people merely wash their hands of their climate change responsibility once they reach this milestone. A true net-zero transition, however, will require all companies and nations, regardless of where they are at on their journey, to collaborate on systemic solutions.

Interface, for example, is focusing heavily on its products and supply chain, as those are the areas of greatest impact for the business. The company is part of the NextWave Plastics initiative, which aims to “turn off the tap” of plastic entering the ocean by creating a global demand for the material amongst businesses.

For Khoo, the supply chain is one example of how a business can respond to its entire impact. And, during the current economic situation, it also provides businesses with a way to support others as part of a green recovery.

“The reality is that the economics are going to be a challenge for a lot of organisations,” Khoo said. “How do you bring along companies that are finding it more difficult right now?

“You can do a whole exercise on suppliers to improve in areas of sustainability, but once they achieve that, if you stop and don’t continue that dialogue, you’ll find that progress stops. Sustainability is a dialogue. It is not just setting a target, its helping people when they get there. We are looking at working more with some of our suppliers, and we want to share what we know and see who else in our network can we work from.”

Khoo believes that companies, whether across the value chain, from the same sector or other areas of the economy are “much more willing to collaborate” due to the changing markets caused by the rise in climate action. As such, even in a current situation where face-to-face meetings are sparse, the opportunity exists for businesses to discuss different pathways to net-zero.

Carbon Sinks

For some companies, offsetting is rising up the carbon reduction hierarchy and is being prioritised over actually carbon reduction efforts in the short term. This can’t be the way forward. There are a lot of discrepancies in the offsetting market that NGOs are working hard to iron out. But while planting trees is valuable, the offsetting initiatives themselves cannot be offset by the continued destruction of the world’s existing rainforests and carbon sinks.

Khoo argues that a company’s entire business model needs to be examined through the lens of climate action, and how moving beyond “less bad” practices can ignite a new mindset that sees business strategies aiming to capture carbon.

“It’s really not enough to be doing less bad and mitigating the negatives,” Khoo added. “To rebalance the books, we need to do more good. Alongside renewables and resource efficiency, we need to look at how we can support and restore natural carbon sinks and how can you make manmade carbon sinks. Ask yourself, ‘how can I run my businesses, my investments and products to act as a carbon sink’.”

Interface will only offer carbon-neutral products as standard to buyers, with the firm’s entire product range now listed under a Carbon Neutral Floors programme.

Interface’s entire product range, consisting of nora carpet and luxury vinyl tiles (LVT), secured carbon-neutral status across the complete product lifecycle and will be offered to customers at no extra cost. The company did reveal that offsets had to be used as part of the programme. Interface has recently released a new backing that contains materials that are carbon negative and recently debuted a carbon-negative carpet tile in the US.

As mentioned, products and supply chains are key areas of focus for Interface because they are the company’s biggest impacts. In a period where investors and policymakers are increasingly focused on green markets, a business needs to analyse its own decision-making processes to ensure it is truly pushing towards net-zero.

“There has to be a sustainability, purpose and social impact lens on everything you do,” Khoo said. “If you are in a business, or in part of a business that isn’t focusing on these, you could be at risk of trouble.”

Edie’s Net-Zero November

edie spoke to Interface’s Jon Khoo as part of Net-Zero November. Brought to you in association with edie’s headline partner EDF Energy, Net-Zero November will offer edie readers an array of net-zero-themed exclusive interviews, downloadable guides, reader blogs, virtual events and podcasts.

As part of the month of content, edie is also encouraging sustainability professionals to submit new or newly created carbon commitments aligned to net-zero on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.

Find out more information here.

Matt Mace

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