Carpet tiles aren’t the first thing that come to mind when we hear the words “sustainable products,” but they darn well should be. Forget bio-dynamic wine, hybrid cars, solar panels and organic bamboo for a minute and focus on the awesome reality that a carpet tile manufacturer–Interface Global to be exact–is leading the way with long-term, sustainable planning and actionable steps to becoming a eco-neutral company.
It’s pretty incredible.
Interface has a great vision when it comes to seeing the big environmental picture. They’ve spent ample time and effort cutting down on waste, finding ways to be more sustainable and investing in their people. Interface Americas Senior Vice President of Marketing–and point person for their sustainability efforts–Joyce LaValle, was kind enough to share some insights on where to start, what’s important and why we should all be re-evaluating our business plans with sustainability + equity in mind.
GG: How did your career lead you to the sustainability leadership role with Interface Americas that you hold today?
JL: Well that’s a whole long story, but let me give you an abbreviated version of it. I began working for Interface about 22 years ago. At that time carpet tile was a new concept in the American Marketplace, and so it was fascinating because it was a very entrepreneurial company with very unique idea. So I began with them—began selling—and have been here ever since. I’ve had many roles. I ran a manufacturing company, they bought a small, high-end broadloom line and I ran that, I’ve run the HR part of the business, I’ve run the organizational learning part of the business; right now I’m Senior Vice President of Marketing, but that too is a position that I’m in because as time has gone on, I’ve come to know the company very well and it’s easy to slide me into slots. If there’s an issue, it’s easy to send me because I’ve been around a long time and I know the parts and pieces. My background is not Marketing, but with all these things that I’ve done, I know the company, the culture and the sustainability story well.
I was there when the sustainability vision came. I was in sales, I was part and parcel of the group that saw this as a new horizon. My daughter has her masters in solid waste management and she was my inspiration. She actually sent me the book, Ecology and Commerce, which through some serendipity I got Ray Anderson [Chairman + Founder of Interface Global] to read and that set a new path for Interface. I didn’t set Ray in a new direction, all I did was give him a book that then set the whole corporation in a new direction.
GG: What are some of the initiatives that Interface has put into place? Can you talk a bit about “Mission Zero”?
JL: “Mission Zero” is an outward branding. We’ve been on the path to sustainability for over 16 years now and when we started, we began with a full-blown plan to create a sustainable enterprise. And we continue—16 years later—to work the same plan. If you go on the Interface, Inc. website and look under sustainability, you’ll see the plan with seven fronts. So until about five years ago, we had been quietly working the plan and then it became clear that our competitors were talking about themselves being green and we chose to brand the journey that we were on as “Mission Zero.” It was an outward promise—along with the obvious internal promise—that by 2020 we would have no adverse effect on the earth by virtue of our business. So we took a very deep plunge to show to the people in every piece that we put out that this is our vision and “Mission Zero” is now a brand. We’re going to lessen our footprint all the way to zero by 2020 and we have plans in place to make that happen.
Now we not only sell carpet, but we bring carpet back into carpeting and backing. So lots of things have happened inside the Interface organization based on the fact that we have a strong driving—you know you could say vision, but it’s really a mission. It’s an extraordinary culture that’s here because of the path that’s been laid out, I mean there’s nobody here that isn’t on the path. Obviously it brings great personal value and satisfaction to work for a company where you make a product that is—I mean there’s no such thing today a product that’s completely sustainable—but that you work for a company that has a plan to move in that direction. It’s a very exciting. It’s a very worthwhile place to be. Our chairman speaks all over the world, he’s a recognized leader and nobody would have expected that from a small, carpet company. We do have an effect that we can bring. We educate and inspire our associates and our customers and I think we’ve had a real effect on the world by virtue of our vision.
GG: Has your experience in taking the path to sustainability proved that one can save the planet and the bottom line at the same time?
JL: Absolutely. Absolutely. Interface has been extremely successful in that. Obviously, we’re affected by the marketplace, but without sustainability as our siren call, we would have been in much worse financial condition in a number of times. Take 2001, which was the last downturn, and this downturn, we’re really weathering the storm in a very good way and we can tell you that it’s all based on that vision. And it’s not altruistic, it’s just good business. When you take the old nutrients from used carpet and make them back into new carpet, that’s a very smart business model, especially when you think about the fact that you’re no longer mining for new materials and you’re cutting yourself off from virgin materials and virgin oil. It’s actually very very smart business.
GG: You spoke briefly about the quality of people working at Interface, how big is that human element in these matters?
JL: Almost immeasurable—though we do actually take a measurement each year. The engagement factor inside Interface around our vision is more powerful—measurably powerful—than many other highly recognized companies. People are very clear on what the vision is and what the mission is and are very drawn to it. I’d also say that—well no young person would wake up and say they want to go to work for a carpet company and yet we have some of the best and brightest who desperately want a job at Interface. We only wish we had enough place for all those people. Recruiting is not an issue, because young people also want their work to be meaningful. They’ve heard of us, because Ray Anderson and about 30 others speak continuously. We are highly desired on college campuses and all of us go with great glee to campuses because, frankly that audience is pre-prepared for that conversation—they’re anxious for the conversation. It’s been quite extraordinary. It certainly wasn’t an intent, but it turns out that it really does matter to people where they work and what kind of company they work for. All the money in the world can’t buy the kind of reputation Interface has. And that reputation has been earned alongside this vision.
GG: So what’s the next step for Interface?
JL: There’s a next step that is always around and that’s innovation. We’ve also just launched an initiative called missionzero.org, which is a gift to the community; one that needs to form and would like to form and take the sustainability journey. It has no advertising. It is not a place for any business to take place, not even ours. It is a welcoming place for the sustainability vision to be discovered—not our vision, but other people’s vision. So people can find their place in that. We’d very much like that community to grow. We believe that within this community, for us, and for many others, there will be solutions discussed and we’ll have our finger on that pulse—because we’re listening for where this conversation is taking us all. Where is the next place? Again, now we can make carpet back into carpet. Our investments at Interface will continuously improve that concept. We believe there could be reclamation sites all over the country and the world, so we get close and closer to getting all the collectable carpeting back into new carpeting again. We have that closed-loop system available, now all we need to do is expand it.
GG: What are the biggest misconceptions about going green with your business?
JL: I think the biggest misconception is around providing better education for people about “green” in order for them to make good choices. Today, everybody is green, supposedly—that is if you believe everything you’ve read. So the challenge is: how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? And for a new designer or buyer, it’s not immediately apparent. Everybody kind of looks green. We know that this isn’t true, but it’s hard to be always in the leadership position because there are always many followers.
GG: What advice would you give to a business that wants to take a new direction towards a more sustainable future?
JL: I recommend them to START. And of course, I’d recommend having a plan. And if they did nothing else, and not even call it sustainability, just say in their business that they’re going to reduce waste, they can get on the path. They’ll need to expand it of course, that’s not really enough, but the one thing about reduction of waste in any corporation or company, is that if you go after waste, what you will find is money. And that will fund all the rest. But a full-blown plan about how you are going to lighten your footprint on a continual basis is what I would love for all corporations to do—and be serious about it.
Joyce LaValle is a featured speaker at the GoGreen ’09 Conference in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, October 7th. Join us for a day of sustainability inspiration and education! GoGreen ’08 sold out, so get your tickets soon to get serious about greening your business. Visit http://www.gogreenpdx.com/registration to register.