Moonshots and loving carbon: Climate action requires step away from 'less bad' business models
Interface's regional sustainability manager Jon Khoo reflects on the success of the firm's Mission Zero sustainability strategy and why businesses need to set "moonshot goals", view the climate emergency through the lens of "climate optimism" and start "loving carbon".
Earlier this month, global carpet manufacturer and sustainability leader Interface revealed that it had achieved the environmental ambitions of its Mission Zero strategy one year ahead of its 2020 timeframe.
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.
The company’s innovation partner Jon Khoo told edie that Mission Zero has encompassed numerous “moonshot goals” that had created a level of ambition and willingness within the business that has galvanised its people to redefine how a business could interact with the environment. He also added that moonshot goals were key to enabling today’s businesses to stare down the climate emergency and deliver tangible, transformational action.
“If you go out with a bold goal, it inspires people, and we need those bold goals today,” Khoo told edie. “But we needed a plan; it made sense of the big, bold moonshot goals and people could relate to how it fitted with their roles in the business.
“It required a change in mindset, an openness and willingness to believe that the moonshot goal was possible. The crux for us, in terms of going beyond zero, is looking beyond incremental, and doing less bad. Greta talks about the house being on fire, and we can’t only put out half of the fire, you need to be bigger and bolder.”
Climate Take Back
The strategy focused on reducing impact in three key areas of the business: factories, products and suppliers. Over the last 25 years, Interface has recorded a 69% reduction in the carbon footprint of carpet tile products, a 96% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, sourced 89% renewable energy and 100% 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.
Interface is now forging ahead with its Climate Take Back strategy, which is also filled to the brim with moonshot goals. It focuses on “bringing carbon home and reversing climate change", transforming dispersed materials into “products and goodness” and creating supply chains that benefit all life and “factories that are like forests”. Last year, Interface committed to becoming carbon negative by 2040.
While pushing ahead with those ambitions, Interface is also reflecting on its past achievements and has published a “Lessons for the Future” report, detailing the enablers that allowed the firm to reach Mission Zero.
Alongside moonshots, Khoo claimed that one lesson that business would need to learn today to deliver real change in the future is to break out of the traditional mindset that focuses on doing “less bad”.
“There’s a traditional mindset within sustainability that is still focused on trying to do less bad,” Khoo said. “It’s the right direction, but it’s too slow. If you’re being iterative, it’s going to be far too late to make a difference.
“We need climate optimism in this time, and that is a mindset shift. It is moving from awareness of the problem to feeling empowered to be part of the solution. It needs to be at a corporate level, but must filter all the way down through the company. It should be what fires your business up and shifts into action.”
Khoo claimed that the Mission Zero and Climate Take Back targets had transformed the business in terms of reputation, to the point where customers wanted increased business with the firm and employees wanted to work for them. It also defined the business as a sustainability leader that “punched above its weight” in comparison to other traditional sustainability leaders like Ikea and Unilever – both much larger than Interface.
Carbon as the enemy?
One of the key messages of the Lessons for the Future report is to “live zero and love carbon”, noting businesses should aim for zero negative impact on the environment and to “stop seeing carbon as the enemy, and start using it as a resource”.
Interface is already taking steps to deliver on this ethos. Last summer, the business announced it 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 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. Prototypes are now being developed and improved to deliver “carbon-negative” flooring tiles, meaning that atmospheric emissions are actually reduced after the manufacturing process.
Interface has joined a growing list of businesses that are urging companies to stop "demonising" carbon, instead treating it as a valuable raw material that can enhance product specifications and cut key environmental footprints if treated correctly.
Khoo noted that innovative and radical businesses could seek to harness carbon as a building block of the future, which in turn could deliver transformational sustainability action plans.
“When we see carbon as just the enemy, you’re looking at in 2D,” Khoo added. “If you look at carbon as an opportunity and a building block and how it can help get to net-zero and beyond, you’re looking at it in 3D.
"Carbon emissions are a good measure of environmental impact, but up until this day organisations really focused on how to reduce it to net-zero, say by using offsets. If you can store carbon, if you can control it and use it as a building block, it flips from something that is always associated as the problem to part of the solution.”
Interface at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020
Interface's Vice president & chief sustainability officer Erin Meezan will be appearing at day one of edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020, to discuss how businesses can rewrite the emergency response plan to combat climate change.
During the two-day event at London's Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February, some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability will gather to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.
The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO, plus directors and senior managers from Pret-A-Manger, Interface, Vattenfall, Aviva, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit: https://event.edie.net/forum/