An interview with Rob Boogaard, CEO of Interface Europe
by Jeroen Geelhoed &samhoud consultancy
“Thanks to our incredibly audacious goal we can realise radical innovations no one ever thought possible” says Rob Boogaard, CEO of Interface Europe, the largest carpet tile manufacturer in the world. Since 1996, Interface has focused on becoming the first environment-neutral company by 2020 and even helping restore the environment and society in the long term. We call this Mission Zero: no waste, no oil and no more non-renewable raw materials. An incredibly audacious goal you could say. One of the chapters of the &samhoud book ‘Creating Lasting Value’ describes the power of Interface’s audacious goal for the organisation and society.
During an interview conducted at the official presentation of Creating Lasting Value, Rob spoke about how this audacious goal has influenced innovation, leadership and branding. Many unusual steps were taken to achieve the goal, resulting in cutting machines featuring NASA technology, a machine line that uses almost 50% less gas and produces double the output, and the utilisation of discarded fishing nets from the Philippines as a raw material in the manufacture of carpet tiles.
How do you create such a range of ground-breaking innovations?
It all began with our vision. Ray Anderson, our founder, saw that we were plundering our natural resources and that our industry was operating in a fundamentally unsustainable manner. Without an example or a conclusive business case, but with that conviction, we embarked on Mission Zero. This is the name we have assigned to our goal for 2020, namely to be the first fully sustainable business with a zero-comma-zero negative impact on the environment. Ray Anderson travelled the world to tell people we could no longer continue in this fashion and that we had to do something to change: “There has to be a better way!”
Defining an audacious goal is one thing. Realising it is another. How do you tackle that as a leader?
By developing a clear roadmap, the first step of which is very down to earth. We formulated a global approach together with experts to eliminate wastage from our company first. Sustainability does not immediately mean ensuring that everything is green, green, green, but involves examining how everything can be done more efficiently. Fewer raw materials, waste and energy simply mean a smaller environmental footprint. This allows you to take greater steps and reinvest the savings in innovative solutions for working more efficiently, designing better products and developing new materials. We have also involved everyone in the process of coming up with solutions, both large and small. This is called the QUEST programme, which challenges employees to propose new ideas. An example is the ultra-sonic cutting machine that features technology from NASA. It allows us to cut with such a high degree of accuracy that we can avoid a substantial amount of wastage and work considerably faster too. Another solution came from someone in the factory, who noticed that some parts of the machines were losing a great deal of heat. He succeeded in limiting this heat loss by wrapping the machines in an innovative way. Together you can do many things that help us systematically bring such a radical goal closer.
You have been working on the same audacious goal since 1996. Are people not tired of this?
You occasionally reach a plateau and then truly require a new breakthrough. Fortunately our goal is so radical that we are obliged to think outside existing frameworks and challenge ourselves all the time. Doing so provides new opportunities for a breakthrough that you initially thought were impossible. Let me give you an example. Last year we invested in a new machine line, an opportunity to tackle an energy-consuming process. Suppliers offered us a solution that could save 20% energy. But we said ‘no’ as 20% is not interesting enough for Interface. We wanted a machine with twice as much output and 45% less energy consumption. This is the only way we can reach our audacious goal.
You then realise that we require knowledge and technology that does not exist for the carpet industry. Through co-innovation we developed a machine in collaboration with a new supplier that already yields twice as much output using almost 50% less energy! We would never have achieved that had we settled for a saving of 20%. You have two options if you can invest: go along with the technology available today or seek new opportunities using a highly ambitious goal. Our audacious goal therefore provides a spin-off effect that opens doors that were previously unknown. Such processes allow you to develop a mentality that is essential for bringing about major changes, namely ‘there has to be a better way’.
How do you manage a co-innovation programme, for example?
That is internationally led by a Global Innovation Officer who coordinates the organisation’s research and development programme. Sometimes an innovative idea appears that is too large for one division to implement. In that case, we examine whether we can implement it using a global approach. Innovations therefore attract the attention they deserve. By keeping our eyes open for all kinds of knowledge and technology that may be relevant to us, we create innovations that no-one ever thought would be the holy grail for the carpet industry.
Was that also the case with fishing nets in the Philippines?
The idea behind the fishing nets stemmed from our goal to end our dependency on oil and a subsequent idea put forward by an employee. She was familiar with the problem of ghost nets floating around coastal areas teeming with fish and their negative impact on biodiversity. We manufacture our tiles from high-quality nylon and knew from our supplier that these finishing nets contain the same type of nylon. We devised a brilliant business model during a brainstorming session in cooperation with an NGO, the Zoological Society of London, and our nylon supplier Aquafil. As a management team, we had neither a conclusive business case nor a guarantee that this would yield anything of benefit to us. We were, however, convinced that we had to do this because our company does not only want to have absolutely no negative impact whatsoever, but also wishes to help improve the environment and society. This inclusive circular purchasing programme, which enables fishermen in the Philippines to become a raw material supplier for our carpet tiles, is now self-funding and will be expanded to other areas. This is truly wonderful and reinforces our conviction that we can only achieve our ambitious goal if we continue listening to the ideas proposed by our employees and suppliers.
To what extent does your branding and marketing strategy differ from that of competitors?
Our vision and approach inspire not only our staff but also the entire industry. Our sustainability also influences the way our competitors operate, to which we say: ‘Fantastic’. Ultimately, Interface has opted for a sustainable future and as many other companies as possible must also follow the same path. I am delighted.
What happens unfortunately all too often, even in our industry, is that companies want to associate themselves with sustainability and ‘buy’ a green label. But you will achieve nothing if the urgency and higher goal are not experienced within the organisation. If you see how integrated everything is in our organisation, that cannot be realised from one day to the next. We do not take short cuts as we do not view sustainability as a program du jour. Our customers realise that and we are world-famous for this approach. We receive invitations from far and wide to share our story, so our branding and marketing is practically spontaneous. Instead of telling exquisite stories, we can simply show our results.
How does sustainability influence your sales?
Our most sustainable product, made from 100% recycled fibres, had the fastest product launch ever. That is wonderful, of course, but we see that sustainability and commerce are changing fundamentally within Interface. We used to offer sustainability to customers as an alternative to the “normal” product, but something like that is completely unimaginable nowadays. Sustainability is so integrated within Interface that we focus primarily on design in terms of sales and marketing. Ultimately, customers do not purchase sustainability but a product they consider wonderful. Yet they are well aware that a product they purchase from Interface is always manufactured from renewable energy, with minimal water and without crude oil where possible.
The book Creating Lasting Value devotes an entire chapter to Interface. This publication provides inspiration, a solid foundation and a concrete approach for building an organisation that creates value for customers, employees, shareholders and society.