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Published October 29, 2014

Sustainability calls for full product transparency and aligned value chains

How can companies across the world and across different industrial sectors learn from the groundbreaking work of a humble carpet tile firm?
Writer
Author's profile page: Tuula Sjöstedt
Lead, Communications and Public Affairs, Sitra
Tuula Sjöstedt is responsible for communications on carbon-neutral circular economy, climate and energy at Sitra.

Interface is a US-based carpet tile company. Not a very sexy business, one might think. However, companies from all kinds of industries look up to them as a pioneer in sustainability. Since 1994, Interface has been on Mission Zero, transforming its business towards carbon neutrality. They want to show that sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand. The company promises to have eliminated any negative impact they may have on the environment by 2020. Wow, a tough target.

“Failing on many targets, succeeding on some is how we have done it,” says Ramón Arratia, European Sustainability Director of Interface EMEAI, when asked how radical sustainability targets can be reached. According to him, the key to sustainability is a fully transparent product design combined to aligned value chains. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Here are seven points Interface has discovered during their journey towards carbon neutrality.

1. Leverage through product design

“By focusing into product design, we can reduce the use of raw materials, energy and water dramatically. You need to make a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of your products and then target the ones with the biggest impact first,” Arratia says. He is convinced that product design offers the greatest leverage for changing the way things are done.

In January 2014, Interface’s European manufacturing unit’s figures looked like this: 95% renewable energy, 90% reduction of absolute carbon since 1996, zero water used in manufacturing process and zero waste sent to landfill. Quite impressive.

2. No more beauty contest

Arratia finds companies today too often concentrating on sustainability reporting. The sole purpose of the sustainability function should not be to produce reports, but to create tools that help the company improve its competitive advantage. For Interface, reducing emissions and waste has been a means to improving their carpet design. 

He talks about a two-phase paradigm shift: from corporate sustainability to product sustainability to systems sustainability; from awards, labels, CSR reports and certifications to product LCA performance to close loop systems with radical materials; from a reporting beauty contest to embedded design to services redesign; and from zero company impacts to zero impacts from the product life cycle to zeroing others by cannibalising the old way of doing business. But how?

 3. Look outside the box

For Interface, their Mission Zero has changed the way the whole company works, inside and out. Product innovations are made on all company levels, and also in co-operation with suppliers and customers. One big innovation made originally as early as in the 1950s was to cut the carpet into tiles, and then find a way to cut the tiles in a way that leads to a minimum amount of waste. How did they do this? Well, they looked for technologies used in other industries. Using ultrasound in cutting was a standard technique used in aeronautics. Sounds easy when you think of it. The best ideas often do. All you need to do is to think outside the box – how have others solved the problem?

4. Align the whole value chain

Arratia is convinced that companies need to align the whole value chain in order to flourish. The story you tell to your customers needs to be the same you tell to your suppliers. In other words, your designers need to focus on the same things your sales force talks about. In addition, what you report to your stakeholders needs to be the same that your marketing claims. And all these can be based on the facts from the LCA. Now we’re talking in a language that number crunchers understand. 

At Interface, almost 70% of the environmental impacts come from raw materials, especially yarn. As yarn had the single biggest impact, they first reduced the amount of yarn used in the carpets by 50%. Next, they studied ways to use more recycled yarn in the composition. They managed to get their yarn supplier Aquafil to invest in a de-polymeration plant that recycles nylon from old fishing nets and carpets in order to produce recycled yarn. In 2011, Interface launched the first industrial carpet made from 100% recycled yarn, and today it is available in over 450 colours.

5. Cannibalise the old way of doing business

Another step for Interface was to replace the use of an adhesive with a sticker with which each four-tile corner could be glued together. Sounds so simple it makes you think: why has no one come up with the idea before? Simple: because adhesives are made by other companies and so it was not considered to be something the carpet companies could influence. Result: a carpet company cannibalizing the adhesive market.

“There is a war going on between traditional businesses and the new way of thinking. It is a collected cannibalisation of the old way of thinking,” Arratia says. A bold statement, but one which makes perfect sense.

6. Find the magic metric

Arratia believes in the power of mandatory regulation. Every industry needs a magic metric to make the right decisions easy for customers, companies and suppliers. You need to find a way of making the environmental impact of your products transparent so that everyone throughout the whole value chain understands what it means. Transparency also creates awareness in consumers.

For example, the car industry was revolutionised by the gCO2/km standard. Now everyone knows that 120 is bad and 90 is good. Simple.

7. Find 20 key employees

Some say you need to get everyone on board in order to change the way the whole company works. Not according to Arratia.

“Sustainability today is made by middle management and innovations. Sometimes it’s enough to have 20 key employees around the company, who keep the flame burning. A charismatic leader at the highest level is, of course, good, but for sustainability not a must.”

So, we don’t need to clone any superheroes to create a more sustainable world. Normal people and ideas do just fine, as long as we don’t turn into “9-to-5, business-as-usual zombies”. Sounds like a good plan to me. With an attitude like this, the sky is the limit – or maybe even space.

Presentation by Ramón Arratia in Helsinki on 23 October, 2014

Text: Tuula Sjöstedt

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