Climbing Toward Sustainability at Interface by 2020

Going green is a hot business trend, but it has not always been that way. When green business leaders Ray Anderson and Jim Hartzfeld started to transform the floor covering company Interface to be environmentally sustainable, there was no map telling them how to get there. Having created the map, they are leading the way for others.

The carpeting and floor covering industry has historically had a large and negative environmental impact. As Chairman of Interface, a pivotal moment for Ray Anderson came in 1994 when he read The Ecology of Commerce by noted environmental author and entrepreneur
Paul Hawken. Describing the moment as a “spear in the chest”, it lead Anderson to change the direction of his life and his business, as related in his book Mid-Course Correction.

Today Interface is a successful international business and well on its way to becoming environmentally sustainable. Since 1994 Interface has reduced greenhouse gas emissions 90% by using renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon offsets. The incorporation of renewable resources in products has increased to 19% and water consumption is down by 79% relative to production. Altogether Anderson estimates they are about 45-50% of the way toward sustainability, all while doing business successfully. “There is no choice to be made between the environment and the economy,” Anderson observes, with Interface succeeding on both fronts.

As the founder and managing director of InterfaceRAISE, a consulting group at Interface, Jim Hartzfeld uses lessons learned there to advise others how to go green. Looking back he investigated how Interface has succeeded in making the transition to greater sustainability, finding “what made it stick and how it drove business value.” They found that the lessons learned were not just about carpeting or floor coverings, but about business fundamentals. Environmental issues affect core strategic elements that every company faces including reducing costs, increasing productivity, building a brand, and accessing talent.

Reducing costs by reducing wasted energy, materials, and water is one of the tangible benefits to going green. Wasted resources equate with lost profit as well as contributing to environmental issues. Interface has avoided over $350 million in costs through its environmental efforts in the last 12 years, making money by saving money. Realizing these cost savings is not always easy though. One of the biggest obstacles Hartzfeld has encountered is the common management mindset that going green is too expensive. To get around this, he helps clients create a plan to start small and make money quickly by picking “low hanging fruit” like simple energy efficiency measures. One client InterfaceRAISE has worked with is Wal-Mart, helping them save money with efficiency measures such as using LED lighting in refrigerator cases, increasing efficiency of stores, encouraging more efficient transportation in their supply chain, and working with suppliers to reduce packaging.

Another benefit of going green is that it gives employees a greater sense of purpose and engagement in the company. “Have a big vision,” Hartzfeld advises, “but take the first step and get started, engaging all employees.”  Going green gets workers “organized and energized around your goals,” says Hartzfeld, adding that “higher purpose improves productivity.”  Employees care more about their work when they believe in what the company is doing and can be a part of it. They start seeing the world in a different way, finding solutions where before they only saw problems. Anderson also believes in the importance of putting the right people in roles to manage environmental work and then empowering them to make it happen. Going green can start with a grassroots effort, or it can begin at the top, but either way the results are most profound when employees at all levels have the opportunity to get involved the belief that their work makes a difference.

In addition to bringing out the best in an organization, going green builds brand and reputation, valuable commodities. Interface owes its success in part to the reputation it has built by leading the green business movement and businesses in other industries have added billions of dollars to their market capitalization by going green. Green brands also attract talent, another valuable commodity and one that can walk out the door. Intense business competition requires innovation and excellent execution, making the ability to attract the best talent an important business success factor.

Building a green brand requires effective and accurate reporting of environmental efforts. Companies must first collect data on environmental performance, and then once the information is collected, Hartzfeld and Anderson suggest laying it out for all to see and seek solutions. In response to concern about greenwashing, Hartzfeld has found that just being honest and presenting the facts is the best strategy. Nobody has yet established the perfectly sustainable business, but providing transparency allows all stakeholders to take appropriate action. “Be willing to look at the shadows,” Hartzfeld suggests, reporting beyond what is required to provide the full picture for all.

nterface is continuing to work to achieve Mission Zero, eliminating any negative impact on the environment by the year 2020, and helping others do well by adopting best practices like these. They are not done yet, but continue to make great progress in the climb up Mt. Sustainability, helping others up to the top along with them.

This is excerpted from PR News' Going Green: Case Studies in Outstanding Green Business Practices, Volume 1. This article was written by Glenn Croston author of 75 Green Businesses, which was released August 2008 with Entrepreneur Press. To order this guidebook or find out more information, visit