How Interface Solved the Impossible (Part 1 of 3)Mar 22, 2023
By Nathan Havey
As we each progress on our stakeholder business journeys, the pioneering companies that have come before us and solved key challenges provide lessons for us all to learn from. One such trailblazing company is Interface, the focus of the award-winning film "Beyond Zero." (Interface was around for 20 years before its founder, Ray C. Anderson, unilaterally decided to change the purpose of the company to become a restorative enterprise, and to do so in a way that they would lead all of the industry to follow suit.)
What follows is the inside story of how Interface tackled a major obstacle standing in the way of their sustainability goals and how it ended up driving innovation at the company.
An Impossible Task
As they worked to figure out how to answer their CEO’s call to reach the summit of “Mount Sustainability” and eliminate the carbon footprint of their business model, Interface leaders discovered a huge problem. The vast majority of the company’s carbon impact was embodied in the energy-intensive nylon yarn it wove into its carpet tiles.
But Interface did not manufacture its own yarn; it purchased yarn from a number of suppliers, over which it had no direct control. To make matters worse, the leading engineers of nylon fiber at major manufacturers told Interface that getting recycled nylon (which would have much lower embodied carbon) was impossible to manufacture without seriously compromising its performance.
The conundrum facing Interface is precisely the kind of challenge that tens of thousands of other companies will have to overcome by 2030 for humanity to buy enough time to solve climate change for good. How Interface solved this problem offers a roadmap to help the rest of us to find our solutions, too.
Modest First Steps
When no complete solution could be found, Interface challenged its engineers and designers to make progress by simply using less nylon. On the factory floor this looked like being obsessive about minimizing scrap and maximizing quality so that they would not have to re-run an order (and emit a lot of unnecessary carbon). These initiatives generated a new energy around cost (waste) reduction efforts that exist for all manufacturers. Interface manufacturers quickly became the most efficient they’d ever been.
In the design shop, the company also experimented with using a more dense design that reduced the overall need for nylon by a few percent per square yard of carpet manufactured. The most immediate impact of this change was a virtual disappearance of customer complaints about the carpet tiles. It seemed that the denser design, in addition to being moderately more sustainable (and cheaper to make), performed better for customers, too!
A Snowball Effect
This change was heralded by no one. It was not a major breakthrough. It was a modest first step. But when the company measured its progress, it was shocked to discover that it had already saved enough energy to power a whole neighborhood. With this early success, the teams that had been a part of these initiatives became hungry for what more they could do.
The people who were actually part of this process tell the story in the film “Beyond Zero.” Have a look at the two-minute scene below.
Just the Beginning
But the story couldn’t end there. Despite the early progress, Interface was still complicit in a system that it knew would threaten Earth’s ability to sustain life (not to mention sustain the business model for a flooring company). So Interface made a critical bet in those early years that would prove pivotal. The story continues with Part 2, in next week’s newsletter.
For those of you in our community who've yet to see the film, we're delighted to invite you to a private virtual screening on April 18.