How Interface Solved the Impossible (Part 2 of 3)Mar 29, 2023
By Nathan Havey
Before reading Part 2 here, make sure to check out How Interface Solved the Impossible (Part 1 of 3).
An Unexpected Stakeholder Steps Up
As Interface searched for a solution to the major sustainability challenge tied to their energy-intensive nylon yarn, it struggled with the fact that most of its yarn came from one big supplier (a household company name that we are not including here) and a couple of much smaller boutique firms. Interface approached its suppliers and asked if any of them could make yarn out of recycled nylon. The answer was a resounding no. Once again, it was considered to be impossible.
Still, as it prepared for its legendary, turning-point meeting in Maui in 1997, Interface invited many of its key stakeholders to attend, hoping to sensitize and inspire them to join Interface’s climb up “Mount Sustainability.” One of their smallest yarn suppliers, an Italian company called Aquafil, accepted the invitation and experienced the Maui conference with more than 1,000 Interfacers (for that scene, you need to see the full “Beyond Zero.") When they returned to Italy, the Aquafil engineers decided to double-down on finding a way to get recycled content into nylon.
Betting on Purpose
Similarly, Interface doubled-down on its sustainability mission and undertook experiment after experiment to eliminate its various environmental impacts. It tried many alternative fibers including PLA yarn, which is made from corn. Sensing a breakthrough opportunity, Interface made a big investment and prepared a big-splash introduction for a new line of carpet tile made with far-more-sustainable yarn from corn.
The signs of trouble did not take long to appear. Shortly after the first few installations of PLA that year, customer complaints skyrocketed. Upon investigation, Interface realized that PLA yarn was not strong enough to hold up in a commercial office environment. To their horror, they discovered that in some cases, PLA yarn would even burn when the right kind of chair was dragged over it. So Interface shelved that approach and went back to nylon.
Meanwhile, the team at Aquafil was making incremental progress. They had successfully incorporated some recycled content into their yarn with no adverse effects on quality. As they did, Interface began to buy more and more of its yarn from Aquafil, creating a positive feedback loop in their relationship, and diverting more and more business away from that big company that rested on its laurels.
Slow and Steady
It did not happen quickly. In fact, it took a decade, but Aquafil’s engineers kept making incremental progress until they had successfully manufactured a 100-percent recycled commercial-grade nylon yarn. They had solved the impossible. And once they had it, not only did Interface use it nearly exclusively, but Aquafil went on to win contracts with Stella McCartey, Nike, Levi’s Jeans, and more.
The people who were part of this process tell the story in the film “Beyond Zero." Have a look at the two-minute scene here.
It Gets Even Better
Is this a good story or what? But believe it or not, this is about to get better than good, because what Interface and Aquafil did next is the kind of thing that sets the bar for stakeholder businesses. The story continues with Part 3, 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.
And for those of you who are loving this and want to go even deeper on the Interface case study, please join Nathan on April 20 for a free virtual workshop detailing many more of the company's inspiring lessons.