Interface nets material gains by closing the loop

Leading carpet tile manufacturer Interface is recovering discarded fishing nets and transforming them into new yarn, ticking social inclusion aims along the way. Conor McGlone finds out more

A pioneering pilot scheme that aims to close the loop and help poor communities around the world has been so successful that its collaborators say it can go all the way.

Global carpet tile manufacturer Interface and conservation charity the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) intend to expand their scheme in developing communities to collect and convert discarded fishing nets into carpet yarn.

Called Net-Works, the collaboration is aimed at tackling the growing environmental problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the world’s poorest coastal communities. Net-Works say its pilot, which ran between June and October 2012 on the beaches in four local communities near Danajon Bank, a threatened coral reef in the Philippines, has proven the economic viability of the scheme.

Working with local communities and NGOs, Net-Works established the infrastructure to collect the fishing nets, gathering one tonne (1,000 kg) of nets in the first month.

Interface chief innovation officer Nigel Stansfield tells edie: “The beauty of this – to the salesperson – is that the product will look no different to what they are already selling.”

For Stansfield the operation ticks all the boxes for Interface because it delivers a sustainable, raw material that can be incorporated back into the remanufacturing process and lends a unique selling point – a differentiator.

Interface has a penchant for sustainability; its appetite for cutting out waste goes back 19 years when its late founder Ray Anderson launched ‘Mission Zero’, a target to eliminate the company’s impact on the environment by 2020.

More recently in 2007 the company launched a sustainable livelihoods business model – a phrase coined by the World Business Council on sustainable development.

According to Stansfield, it was the company’s first endeavour into an inclusive business model with a very strong social dimension. But it was not a success – the outcome was disappointing, yet it formed the beginning of a learning process and kept the company thinking about sustainability.

“How do we integrate a social dimension, how do we do inclusive business, how do we do sustainable livelihoods in our products was the question,” recalls Stansfield.

“For many years we had been encouraging our suppliers to adopt a principle of reusing raw material wastage,” he adds.

As luck would have it, one of its main suppliers, Aquafil, was doing just that. Aquafil had developed technology to depolymerise nylon 6 and it started to source waste streams that contained the material. Finding that the pure form was particularly prevalent in fishing nets, Aquafil turned to large industrial fish farms to garner volume.

It was then that Interface saw an opportunity – Aquafil could collect industrial fishing nets, but how could it reach out into local, more remote fishing communities?

“These were also the areas where you have the potential to do more good in the community,” observes Stansfield.

This is a business for the future, he maintains. “With hundreds and thousands of local fishing communities around the world, there is a huge potential to expand.”

The next step is a new goal to collect 20 tonnes of nets by the end of April. And while making a profit in the short-term is attractive, making the process self-sufficient is the greater pull for the carpet manufacturer.

“Crucially we are going to develop tool kits that make this readily expandable without necessarily Interface’s or ZSL’s direct intervention,” reveals Stansfield.

“You need a distance from it, so you can help, monitor and guide, but you don’t have to be on the ground day-to-day teaching people how to operate.

“It is about making sure this is transferable to other villages, and also transferable to other NGOs and other local communities in other countries that can adopt the principles and make it a self-sustainable business model,” he explains.

However it is not all plain sailing. Stansfield says many logistical barriers had to be overcome to make the operation viable.

“Industrial fishing nets are easy to see and collect, but what you’re talking about here is very small amounts – even a 200m fishing net that is half a meter wide doesn’t weigh hardly anything, so you need to collect a huge amount of nets to physically get a large amount of material.

“Logistically that’s very complex. You need to get a lot of villages and people involved and that’s an extremely difficult task,” he maintains.

Working with the ZSL and an NGO, Interface has been providing training and support for local community groups to make this happen at a local level.

“You’ve got to really drive it down to a local level because if you don’t you’ll never collect the kind of volume or scale you need,” adds Stansfield.

Conor McGlone is a reporter at edie

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