Interface Climbs The 7 Faces of Mount Sustainability | Weatherhead School at Case Western Reserve University

Interface Climbs The 7 Faces of Mount Sustainability

Posted 10.19.2005

According to Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, one of the world’s largest commercial carpeting manufacturers, his company is climbing the Seven Faces of Mount Sustainability one face at a time and they are 40% of the way to the top.

“How are we climbing Mount Sustainability?” asked Anderson. “Even when some people thought I had gone around the bend, I stayed on message. The people at Interface made the change one mind at a time.”

Anderson told a group of 140 participants at The Center for B·A·W·B's summit on The Future of Management Education at the Intersection of Business and Society, that Interface started with a schematic in 1994 linking all parts of the company and the earth. Their analysis resulted in a plan called “The Seven Faces of Sustainability” that requires Interface to climb all the faces to make it to the top of the mountain. The first face requires elimination of waste, the second better emission with no further harm to the biosphere, the third covers harnessing renewable energy such as sunlight, wind, and hydrogen, the fourth closes the loop on material flows for virgin fossil derived material, the fifth will improve transportation to achieve carbon neutrality, the sixth face is the most important and requires creating a culture shift, and the seventh face is the redesign of commerce itself.

Anderson approaches the issues of sustainability in terms of three trends: We know there is a problem; we are consuming the earth and hurting the biosphere; and a new trend called environment ethics or “creation care” by religious conservatives has people more aware we are pushing nature too far. It is where these two trends intersect that the fate of humankind will be decided.

“We are in the process of losing the biosphere,” said Anderson. “It would be instructive to consider how a living planet, the rarest and most precious thing in the universe, could lose its biosphere. We are thinkers and we don’t want to think about it but we must make ourselves do so.”

Anderson told a quiet, spellbound audience that if the Earth loses its livability it will happen one polluted river, one dying coral reef, one algae bloom at a time; one disrupted animal migration corridor at a time; one corrupt politician at a time; one disappearing acre of rain forest at time; one depleted or polluted aquifer at a time; one breath of foul air at a time; one political payoff at a time resulting in one new degree of pollution at a time; one obsolete college curriculum at a time; one misplaced kilogram of plutonium at a time; one uninformed manufacturer at a time; one songbird at a time; one entire wild species at a time; one poverty stricken starving or diseased human being at a time. He expressed his belief that when human beings stop and think they know how this is happening. It is a long slippery slope and all human beings are on it.

“It will not stop until we homo sapiens come to our senses or it is all over and we are gone,” said Anderson. “So, out of a growing sense of right and wrong, environment ethics has evolved.”

A self-proclaimed newcomer to this new reality, Anderson tells of having an epiphany at age 61 after one of his sales managers gave him a book, Paul Hawkins’ The Ecology of Commerce, at a point when customers were asking what Interface was doing for the environment. Anderson had agreed to speak to group of environmentalists shortly before Hawkins books landed on his desk. He skimmed the book and a chapter called “Death of Birth” caught his attention. The chapter talked about caring capacity, overshoot, collapse and extinction, coupled with a story about the near extinction of the reindeer on St Matthew’s Island in Alaska. Anderson realized that although the reindeer returned, many of the resources his company was exploiting would not return. He asked himself what type of legacy he was leaving for his grandchildren.

“I knew it was a metaphor for earth and humankind,” said Anderson. “It was an epiphanal moment for me. As sure as the law of gravity, is the inevitable overshoot effect and the collapse of the planet if we continued on this course. As we speak humankind is in overshoot, using at least 20% of the planet for human capacity.”

A new definition of success flooded Anderson’s consciousness: He suddenly saw himself as a “plunderer of earth”, stealing from his grandchildren’s future. He not only saw the biosphere declining, but the industrial system as the major part of this decline and his institution making the biggest portion of the waste and problem. So, 11 years ago, he challenged a group to lead Interface to sustainability. Since that time, Anderson, in his book MidCourse Corrections, describes himself as a “recovering plunderer”.

Interface, a petro-intensive company, has approached this company-wide change by looking to nature as a model. Color, texture, and design now give many products life after life in closed loop material flows. Interface recycles its products, using everything over and over. The company is strongly service oriented and buys products that deliver service as nature delivers service, cyclical, no haste makes waste, strongly connected to all constituents, connected to each other in the organization, and to the eco-system in the organization itself. They are way ahead of regulatory process rendering the regulatory process irrelevant, according to Anderson. All undesirable linkages are gone and they are doing very well by doing good. With a declining throughput of virgin materials that will make Interface truly sustainable over time, the company envisions zero footprints on the environment by the year 2020. As Anderson says, “effect and cause are all rolled up into a positive loop for the environment.”

Anderson asked the audience how an ethically enlightened species could address the slippery slope. He answered his own question, -- it is technology. Technology, he said, is part of the problem and it is the very character of technology that puts it in the numerator of an equation consisting of I = Impact; P = Population; A = Affluence and T = Technology.

“We use less than 3% of what we extract from the earth as through-put in the industrial system.  The rest has no value whatsoever after its extraction from the earth," said Anderson.  A laptop requires 40 pounds of stuff extracted to produce a 9 pound laptop, with many gazing down at the laptops in front of them as he spoke.

“It is possible to make technology part of the solution,” said Anderson. “It is the challenge of our time. We must focus on resource productivity. The trend has begun but haltingly. We must move much more quickly to put T in the denominator to reach Mount Sustainability.”

Interface’s statistics as they climb Mount Sustainability are impressive and Anderson believes as they move forward companies everywhere will want to emulate their example. For instance, according to Anderson, net greenhouse gas emissions are down 52% and they are 2/3 from efficiencies; 1/3 from offsets. The Kyoto Protocol calls for 7% reduction in emissions by 2012.

“Come on,” says Anderson, with a laugh. “Our smokestacks are 40% closed. 52,000 trees have been planted to offset our travel emissions in our “Trees for Travel” program, 66 million pounds of material offset from landfills have given life after life to the planet and we hope some day to mine the landfills for our petrochemical feedstock.”

Anderson likes to point out that he does not believe you can make green products in a brown company. He told summit attendees that no one stands alone on the ecological front. For Interface, the entire greening initiative has been incredibly good for business. Costs are down, not up. Interface believes its products are better than ever. Several Interface designers recently spent a day in the forest to determine how nature would design a carpet. The result of that trip was the Entropy® carpet tile, biomimicry flooring with almost no waste or quality reduction, which brings the outdoors indoors. Inspectors couldn’t find a fault with it, according to Anderson, despite the fact that – like flooring in the forest - no two tiles were alike.

When Interface began its journey up Mount Sustainability in 1997, its annual sustainability report was 19 pages long. Today it is 400 pages available online to any company interested in joining them in the eco-friendly journey. Anderson says the goodwill of the marketplace in response to the greening of Interface has been astounding.

“I see no other long-term choice if industry and the planet are to survive,” said Anderson. “We will learn to make peace rather than war with Earth and teach peacemaking at our universities.”

He specifically addressed the many faculty and administrators from Case and other national and international universities, telling them the university must decide upon its role and whether it will be part of problem or part of the solution. “Will your students study combustion engines or fuel cells?” he asked them. “Will chemistry cover the next PCP or green economics and cleaner water? Will management students learn truthful cost accounting and put a barrel of oil truthfully at the $200 a barrel it would be if there were no wars or burning of that oil? Will our students be taught the present out-moded system of management,” he asked, “or will universities wake up to change the status quo and curriculum to focus on a sustainable future?”

“The future depends on vast redesign of the system,” said Anderson. “One mind at a time, one community at a time, one industry at a time, one region at a time, one university at a time until the entire system has become a sustainable system.”

“It seems to me that culture with its taboos and morays is the reflection of society’s mindset,” Anderson continued. “What is our prevailing paradigm? We have a flawed world view and a flawed view of reality. Our culture is infatuated with stuff.”

Anderson reminded his audience that the Earth is finite and advised everyone to adopt the Native American standard of seven generations, which states that what we create now must be sustainable through seven generations. Happiness, he says, will not be found in the trappings of affluence and material wealth. People know that more stuff will not make them happy. The route to abundance is for all human beings to increase resource productivity. But the market can be very dishonest because it is blind to these realities.

“What we do to the web of life we do to ourselves,” Anderson cautioned. “In the current paradigm, business exists to make a profit. But for the future, business will make a profit to exist, and it must exist for some higher purpose. What CEO wants to stand in front of his or her maker some day and talk about shareholder value?”

Anderson summed up his thoughts and speech with a recent experience that he sees as a metaphor for environmental sustainability. In late August 2005, Anderson and his wife, Pat, were on vacation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The environmental elephant in room that week was Hurricane Katrina. Anderson decided to take a walk the day Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. He was walking along a trail, when he suddenly stopped because, 60 feet ahead, stood a bull moose. The enormous, seven to eight foot moose stood cross-ways on trail. For a moment, Anderson considered clapping to shoo him away, then he realized that not only would that be stupid, but more important that the trail belonged to the moose and he, Anderson, was an intruder. He turned and walked back down the trail keeping a watchful eye. He realized he had been face to face with a force of nature. Later he and his wife watched the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the news each day.

Anderson says he couldn’t miss the metaphor. Humans, he told summit participants, want to shoo away nature to make way for themselves but if he had done that with the moose he would be mincemeat. The atmosphere, said Anderson, is nature's trail. Human beings constantly challenge nature on her trail. On August 29th nature charged from Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana and Mississippi are now mincemeat. Although Anderson was quick to say he doubted any scientist would say Hurricane Katrina or, later, Hurricane Rita, were caused by global warming, he believes they would say the hurricanes were exacerbated by global warming.

“Why were the Gulf waters abnormally warm?” Anderson asked his audience. “As long as we continue to intrude on nature’s trail, thinking we can shoo her away and take it for ourselves, we do so at our own peril and will suffer the consequences. It is her trail and we cannot do what we will with it as we please. We will realize this one mind at a time.”

“Who will lead?” he challenged the crowd in conclusion. “Why not you? Why not shape the minds of the future?”

By Janet Roberts

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