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Inspiration & Entrepreneurship

Inspiration & Entrepreneurship in Italy

The power of an impossible goal

By Jeroen Geelhoed &samhoud consultancy

“I am a plunderer, a destroyer of the earth, a thief of my grandchildren’s future. One day people like me will be put in jail.”

This realisation changed the life of Ray Anderson.

What a simple customer question can do
Interface was founded by Ray Anderson in 1973, and grew to become the world leader in carpet tiles, with a turnover of a billion dollars. But in the summer of 1994 a sales manager left a memo on Ray’s desk: “Some customers want to know what we are doing for the environment. What can we say to them?” Anderson knew it would not be enough to simply tell customers that Interface complied with environmental legislation. So a sustainability task force was set up to give a better answer to the customers’ question. Anderson was due to give the kick-off speech, but he didn’t know what to say. That is until he read Paul Hawken’s book ‘The Ecology of Commerce’. Its message was that the world’s major corporations are the only institutions that are powerful enough to save us from the environmental disaster they are now creating. This realisation led Ray Anderson to set an ‘impossible’ goal. He wanted to build a successful, profitable business that would also make a contribution to restoring the environment. In concrete terms, Interface would be fully sustainable by 2020: Mission Zero. Many, including many on Wall Street, found it absurd.

How to climb the mountain
To begin with, the definition of ‘waste’ was significantly sharpened, so that all fossil fuels were also defined as waste and therefore had to be eliminated. It was decided to climb Mount Sustainability on seven strategic fronts (http://www.interfaceflor.co.uk/web/sustainability/mission_zero/seven_fronts). Employees’ ideas play a key role in attaining these objectives. Interface launched a company-wide programme known as QUEST: Quality Utilising Employees’ Suggestions and Teamwork. Employees’ ideas are actively collected and used to reduce energy consumption, eliminate waste, and to communicate milestones so that employees know that their contributions have effect. But, Interface discovered that they could only directly influence 17% of the climate impact. The rest was accounted for by the use of carpet tiles by customers (15%) and by the raw materials (68%). Interface had to seek out creative solutions in the production chain, and totally overhaul their business model in some areas. To give a few examples:

  • Adhesives: Carpet tiles are usually fixed with adhesives. This means that volatile compounds are released, and this is ‘waste’. Interface carried out research into the gecko’s ability to walk upside down on a flat surface (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/11/why-a-geckos-feet-can-stick-to-almost-anything/). The structure of a gecko’s feet provided the inspiration for the stickers that are now used to connect the corners of the carpet tiles. Because adhesives are no longer needed, no more volatile compounds are released, and the tiles are easier to lay andto remove. What’s more, this method is cheaper.
  • Fishing nets: A partnership has been set up with fishermen in the Philippines. There are countless discarded fishing nets floating around in the waters of this region, causing untold damage to wildlife. Interface arranges for these nets to be collected by local fishermen, because they are made of the same polyamides that are used to make carpets, which is exactly what is being done with them now (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HCfLMVgub8).
  • Second Life: Customers can hand in their old carpet tiles when they buy new ones. Interface uses the old tiles as the raw material for new ones. There are special machines in the factories to unpick the old carpet tiles so they can be used to make new products.

These are just a few examples from a very long list of initiatives, but they illustrate the power of an ‘impossible’ goal.

70% with six years still to go
Today, 70% of the aim has already been achieved. Total energy consumption has fallen by 39% since 1996. Seven of the nine factories operate with 100% renewable electricity, 49% of raw materials are now recycled, and water consumption has been reduced by 81%. With an annual turnover of 932 million dollars Interface is the world market leader. But still, Interface is not euphoric just yet. Because as they say themselves, the final steps up Mount Sustainability are the hardest. 

It can be done
Despite the fact that the aim has not yet been totally achieved, this story shows that it can be done: businesses can be highly successful and make a substantial contribution to society. What is key?

  • There is a powerful sense of urgency and excitement. This is expressed in an inspiring vision (Mission Zero) that is both inspiring and challenging. It is a radicalvision, and it is supported by the company’s leadership. It has also been translated into a practical strategy (the ‘seven fronts’). Sustainability has been integrated into the overall business strategy and not in the form of a quasi-marketing social responsibility project.
  • Management is genuinely focussed on progress towards the audacious goal. There is a high priority on finding solutions that create value for customers, employees, shareholders and society as a whole. The ultimate aim of Mission Zero is always kept in sight, and there is a willingness to embrace radical changes in working methods.
  • Because Interface cannot achieve Mission Zero alone, they inspire customers, suppliers and other stakeholders to work together on their mission. Many audacious goals sound like “we want to be number 1!” (http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/government/we-want-to-be-number-one-says-uae-vice-president-1.958703 ), or “we want to be the best!” But what Interface teaches us is that your audacious goal can inspire others to help you achieve it.

So this company raises a number of intriguing questions for us all: Is our organisation’s audacious aim so inspiring for others that they will help us to achieve it? Is it so challenging that it helps us to change our businessmodels for the better? And how can we make a substantial contribution to society through a successful business? It is questions like these that make doing business so fascinating and so rewarding!

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