When Ray Anderson, founder of Interface (TILE), spoke at the industrial carpet maker’s annual meeting in 1995, he skipped the usual talk about margins and inventories. Instead, the chief executive officer slammed his slide carousel down on the table and said, “I’m not going to talk about the company. I’m going to talk about Mother Earth, and she’s in trouble.”
Anderson went on to describe industry’s toxic legacy and evoked a future in which market-leading companies like his clean up their act, compelling others to do the same. He proclaimed that Interface would phase out “virgin” nylon in favor of recycled. Its factories and offices would replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. And by 2020 the company would cease to produce waste of any kind. “You could hear a pin drop in there,” recalls Dan Hendrix, Interface’s current CEO and the company’s chief financial officer at the time. “Not one question got asked at that meeting.” The following day Interface’s stock fell 50 percent.
Carpet manufacturing is a dirty business. The mills pump out huge amounts of carbon dioxide and wastewater filled with chemical dyes. And the petroleum-based nylon used to make the yarn is nonbiodegradable. According to GreenWaste Recovery, a recycling company, about 4 billion pounds of old carpet ends up in landfills each year in the U.S.
Unfazed by Wall Street’s repudiation of his plan, Anderson assembled what he called an “Eco Dream Team” of advisers that included Paul Hawken, an entrepreneur and author of the book The Ecology of Commerce. The company rethought every level of its manufacturing, including disposal and transportation.
Today, Interface has annual revenue approaching $1 billion, up from $595 million two decades ago, when Anderson launched the plan he dubbed Mission Zero. Its modular carpet tiles can be found in CVS (CVS) pharmacies and Apple’s (AAPL) headquarters. The company’s seven factories on four continents are, on average, 39 percent more energy efficient and consume 83 percent less water, says the company. Nearly half of its raw materials come from recycled and natural sources. “What is remarkable is that Interface has stuck with Mission Zero through thick and thin,” says John Elkington, executive chairman of Volans, a London-based consultant, and a leading authority on corporate sustainability. “It’s had a number of failed ventures along the way, but it has not put them off.”
At an Interface plant in West Point, Ga., giant stainless-steel spools thread nylon yarn into enormous stitching machines that tuft it into sheets of carpet. The factory once sent almost 1,000 tons of unused trimmings to landfills. Then one of Interface’s employees redesigned the century-old tufting system, reducing yarn scrap by 54 percent.
Interface also devised ways to recover and reuse old carpet tile. One process, called Cool Blue, transforms used carpeting into new carpet backing, helping cut the use of polyvinyl chloride—a longtime scourge of environmentalists. Inspired by geckos, whose sticky feet allow them to climb slick surfaces, engineers at Interface designed small plastic squares that securely connect carpet tiles to each other, eliminating the need to permanently glue them to the floor.
Anderson, who described himself as a “radical industrialist,” understood that to achieve his Mission Zero goals he had to conscript his suppliers. So in 1999 he began prodding them to come up with a process to recycle yarn, with the promise of a greater share of Interface’s business. Aquafil, a small family-run company based in Arco, Italy, took up the challenge. Working together, the companies developed Econyl, an entirely recyclable nylon for carpet fibers. Interface now buys 51 percent of its nylon from Aquafil, up from 21.4 percent in 2005. “We can’t do it alone,” says Interface head designer David Oakey. “You have to have the supply chain come along with you.”
“I’m not going to talk about the company. I’m going to talk about Mother Earth, and she’s in trouble.”—Ray Anderson, late CEO and founder of Interface
Anderson died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 77. Hendrix, who was appointed CEO in 2001, shows no sign of veering from the path charted by his predecessor. That journey has taken the company to some unexpected places. In 2010, Interface joined with several nongovernmental organizations to launch Net-Works, a program that collects old nylon fishing nets from 26 villages in the Philippines, cleaning and processing them so they can be turned into carpets. Over the past two years the program has salvaged 30 tons of nets; for every 5.5 pounds collected, a family receives enough money to purchase 2.3 pounds of rice. Heather Koldewey, who heads global conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London, one of the partners in Net-Works, says results have exceeded her expectations: “We’ve established a business model that provides income now and into the future and helps the environment.” A similar effort will kick off in Cameroon in January.
Not all of the company’s green initiatives have met with success. An experiment with producing hand-woven jute and hemp carpet tiles in India was shelved because Interface was unable to find a market for them, says Lindsay James, Interface’s restorative enterprise vice president.
As of last year, 55 percent of the company’s yarn still came from virgin nylon, and it sent 612 tons of waste to landfills. A factory in the Netherlands runs almost entirely on renewables, but its Georgia plants are largely powered by electricity generated with fossil fuels. Is Hendrix worried he won’t make the 2020 deadline? “I tell people if not 2020 then 2021 or 2022. We’ll try like hell to get there.”