Climate Take Back: Inside Interface’s bold new mission to reverse climate change

EXCLUSIVE: Just four years away from its ambitious Mission Zero deadline, global carpet manufacturer and sustainability leader Interface has decided to evolve its sustainability strategy, developing an unparalleled initiative that goes "beyond the boundaries" of any single company. edie's Matt Mace investigates.

Turning 21 has always held connotations of transcending into adulthood, where responsibility increases and individuals are tasked with viewing the world and its trends in a more holistic and less-selfish view.

For Georgia-headquartered firm Interface, turning 21 – back in 1994 – saw it begin to shape its future trajectory, as it began to emerge from a carpet business to a green leader; a catalyst of the climate movement.

Inspired by Paul Hawken’s the Ecology of Commerce book, Interface’s founder and chairman Ray Anderson introduced the company to a bold new vision that would not only require a new way of thinking, but a new way of operating. Anderson’s “epiphany” led to the creation of the company’s Mission Zero initiative, a pledge to ensure that the company would leave no negative impacts on the environment by 2020.

In the years that followed, Interface introduced a variety of innovative initiatives to reduce waste, emissions and water use to zero, while growing a business portfolio that will eventually use 100% renewable energy and only bio-based product materials.

Now, with just four years to go to complete this vision, Interface’s vice president of sustainability, Erin Meezan, is confident that it will reach these goals, and she believes the company is ready to embark upon the next phase of green business development. From the latest figures, you can see why: global waste to landfill has reduced by 91% against a 1996 baseline, while renewable energy usage currently sits at 84% globally and 100% across Europe. During this same timeframe, energy reduction has also hit 50% and bio-based materials account for 50% of the company’s products.

“We find ourselves at this really interesting point where we are four years away from hitting our original goal,” Meezan says. “But over the past four years, our thinking on how to be a sustainability leader in business has really evolved.

“We are challenging ourselves to take the next step, and take the next path for Interface and what that looks like. We’ve done about a year of work internally and externally reaching out to employees about what our vision for the future should look like and what it means to operate in a positive system that has a positive impact on the world.”

This year of soul-searching has finally bore fruit, and Interface has just announced a fresh sustainability agenda that builds on that Mission Zero platform first established by Anderson. By liaising with staff – many of which Interface has been able to recruit directly because of its strong track record as a sustainable leader – the company has become aware that big business is often still failing to “explicitly focus on climate change” – a concept which many, including Meezan, view as the “biggest threat facing the community and the planet”.

Here’s where Climate Take Back – the successor to Mission Zero – comes in. After numerous rounds of internal conversing, the company settled on four key targets that it will strive to implement as part of an even more ambitious sustainability agenda. And these targets seem as ambitious today as Mission Zero did 20 years ago.

Beyond boundaries

The first pillar under this Climate Take Back initiative is notably bold: We will bring carbon home and reverse climate change. Interface will explore how raw materials – the “building blocks” for the company – can actually harness or ‘trap’ carbon as a resource.

Does one company really have the means to reverse the effects of climate change? For Meezan, the answer is NO, but the subliminal aim of Climate Take Back is to light a fire underneath other companies that creates a collaborative green push within the private sector that goes beyond traditional carbon reductions.

“This is the first time in which we are declaring something which is way beyond the boundaries of our company,” Meezan says. “We are going to need a lot of help, so we are also going to need a pretty vibrant platform. We can encourage others to not just create their own plans but change their thinking and their attitude about this and declare this as their goal as well.”

If other companies do climb aboard this highly-ambitious green business push, they’ll have to be prepared to create supply chains that benefit all life and make factories that are like forests – the second and third pillars of Interface’s Climate Take Back movement.

Interface is already working to make its supply chains more sustainable and ethical through its Net-Works products, which aims to create “a truly restorative loop in carpet tile production” by utilising waste found on beaches and in oceans. But the firm is striving to push beyond this model, with Meezan hoping to create a resilient supply chain that “challenges [Interface] to find materials that currently have a negative environmental impact and design it in a way which will comply with environmental challenges and so is in a business model that benefits local communities”.

While efforts to promote supply chain sustainability will undoubtedly contribute to Interface’s aim to transform dispersed materials into products and goodness – the fourth Climate Take Back pillar – it is the concept of “making factories like forests” that really excites Meezan.

“We find ourselves in a situation where a lot of the ways we run a business are not in perfect harmony,” he adds. “Even 22 years ago, we asked the question: ‘if nature designed a business what would it look like?’. Nature runs on renewable energy; you can see the parallel. This time we are challenging ourselves to go even further, and follow nature’s lead in doing this.

“The problem now is identifying high-performing, local eco-systems in one of our factory environments and cataloguing with biologists on how habitats and the way they operate can be mapped as an operating standard for our facilities.

“We will start to challenge the business today on how we might be able to meet those changes.”

The known unknowns

Should Meezan and her sustainability team be scared? Should Interface stakeholders be unconfident that it will reach these bold goals? Should the carpet tile manufacturer’s strategy be based only on the known knowns of sustainability?

No. The company is actually in an ideal position. Sustainable business is about learning from the future as it emerges. It is about taking voyage of discovery into unknown lands, seeking not for new territory but for new technologies and innovations. It is about setting bold targets for the future that you don’t know exactly how you’ll reach today.

And, for Interface’s chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Rob Boogaard, the current social landscape – which has recently introduced to landmark climate-related initiatives in the Paris Accord and the Sustainable Development Goals – has created the ideal environment to execute Climate Take Back. 

According to Boogaard, the aftermath of COP21 and the SDGs has created a greater understanding of the severe risks of climate change, and that businesses, although alarmed, are increasingly likely to turn to new business plans that could mitigate climate effects, much like Climate Take Back aims to do.

“It’s exciting to see countries around the world coming together around a target,” Boogaard says. “But we need to go beyond it, because the agreement is far reaching. Going to zero is not enough, we need to go beyond zero. This current environment for change is really positive and we feel now is the time to state lofty goals to create a new movement.

“Although we all know climate change is real, we all collectively turn our heads as it is such a big thing and we feel as if we cannot influence it. To change this, we need to convene power, and although Interface can’t create a larger impact like some companies could, we’ll work to convene with like-minded companies to push this movement and really reverse climate change. It’s a very bold and risky step but it’s exciting just like Mission Zero was.”

Both Boogaard and Meezan say Interface will be “extremely transparent” when implementing the new scheme, as a means of highlighting how this risky new approach can pay dividends in the long-term. Both are also in agreement that companies are yet to find the answer to truly reverse climate change, and they feel that any initial reluctance to operate within this model will eventually subside once people are drawn to the “tangible and real” achievements that Interface is expecting from Climate Take Back.

“Changing the model is going to be daunting,” Boogaard adds. “Zero emissions and zero waste, it’s like telling a bakery not to use flour. But our employees are becoming a little restless and they want to see new ideas. Mission Zero has created a sense of urgency and people want to be more actively involved. I expect this urgency to extend to other companies as well.”

For Meezan, Climate Take Back doubles up as new internal sustainability agenda for the company to abide by, but also acts as recruitment platform that attracts other like-minded companies to join the push and overcome traditional barriers of how climate change is too “big, daunting and practically impossible” to tackle.

Fear factor

With the recent Clean Energy Ministerial event in San Francisco encapsulating the private sector’s willingness to collaborate in order to establish a global change, Meezan believes that people will be “surprised” by just how many companies begin to align their business models with this new groundbreaking initiative.

“Lots of companies are afraid to speak about [climate change] publicly because they don’t have an answer,” Meezan adds. “We need to overcome this barrier and make the internal business population think it is possible. We will do this by having optimistic and ambitious conversations about everything we are doing in the business. It’s really about building our plan and recruiting other companies to build an even bigger movement.”

Already part of the RE100 initiative that has targeted more than 1,000 companies to commit to sourcing renewable energy, Interface is now in the position to communicate with companies who share the same common goals. But, for Meezan, the company’s new initiative will really accelerate once companies see what can be achieved. With a Research and Development (R&D) department expected to produce concepts for the four pillars by 2017, it might not take long for the market to be filled with confidence.

“This will change our industry, our competitors and our customers once they see what’s possible and tangible; this really will change mindests,” Meezan says. “There will definitely be companies who will fear this because it’s such a large commitment. But there are many others who will look at this challenge optimistically and view it as an opportunity to have a deeper role in society.

“We can take away the fear as long as we communicate the message. I’m really optimistic about reaching out to our partners and I think we’ll be surprised by the amount of people who will embrace this.”

Matt Mace

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