Category Archives: Sustainability

Sustainability for Beginners: Lessons Learned from 2017’s Living Product Expo

Sonya Myers

There’s no better way to learn a new subject than to immerse yourself in it completely, right? And if you’re on your second week of the job, it makes sense for your employer to just throw you in headfirst.

Before I started at Interface, I thought I knew some things about climate change and sustainability. The 2017 Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh, hosted by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), proved me very, very wrong.

2017 Living Products Expo in Pttsburgh

“Hello from beautiful Pittsburgh!”

What’s nice about going to something of an “insider” conference is that everybody already gets it. People attend the Living Product Expo because they want to find practical, sustainable solutions to their problems. They’re talking about how to build better buildings. They’re introducing innovations in sustainable products and materials. They’re taking on ILFI’s Living Product Challenge or Living Building Challenge.

As I am not a designer, builder, manufacturer nor sustainability enthusiast, I attended the Living Product Expo to get an education in all of the above.

What I learned was eye opening. There are tons of organizations and companies working to make positive impacts on the environment and tackling sustainable solutions to global warming worldwide. Some were obvious; some were not. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Reversing global warming

Paul Hawken’s keynote gave plenty of reason reasons to be optimistic on the climate change front. And he laid out a new goal of working to reverse global warming completely. The Paris Climate Accord was a good first step, but aiming to simply reduce is not enough.

“When you believe something, you believe it into existence and it becomes your experience.”

Having a goal of reducing global warming implies complacency. It says that we’re okay with letting harmful pollution go unchecked if we can possibly offset it elsewhere. Therefore, we have to reverse global warming if we want to do any good for the earth and the people who live on it.

(For the record, Hawken’s Project Drawdown has compiled a list of scalable, sustainable solutions to global warming to look at and support if you’re interested.)

How chemicals affect human health

It’s crazy how many chemicals we are exposed to simply because of the materials that make up our built environment. And given that we spend the vast majority of our lives indoors, this is something that affects everyone.

Living Products Expo: Slide on C02 in the atmosphere

A visualization of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere over time.

Several panels centered around how we measure our chemical exposure, how that affects our health, and what we can do about it. One of the major barriers to change? There have been no major environmental protection laws passed in 20 years. And, government regulation in general has slowed compared to science.

From an industry perspective, the compounding effect of chemical exposure and how to address it is a difficult but necessary discussion. Just look at the debate about PVC and whether it can be a responsible, sustainable material. It’s clear that industry needs to change, but it’s a slow and difficult process.

Making more noise about how built environments affect our individual health could spur change that much faster. And that’s not just at the manufacturer level, but also at the legislative level.

What can we do about it?

I’m not the person with all the answers—that much should be clear. And, my education in these topics is far from over. But one of the Living Product Expo’s recurring themes was the power of individual action to create change.

We as individuals have more power than we think. Beyond recycling more and driving less, we can make the biggest impact by leveraging our position as consumers. If we can’t get the government to pass stricter regulations, we have to give consumer feedback to the companies we buy products from. In a society where money talks, monetary support (or lack of) can really create change.

If consumers pushed back more on industry, it would force a perspective shift from simply focusing on profit to focusing on corporate responsibility. That impact would spread outward, adding to all the other countless efforts to find sustainable solutions to global warming and really do some good.

 

As I reflect back on my few days at the Living Product Expo and get immersed in life at Interface, I’ve started to change my own personal habits. It may be my small contribution, but it’s nice to be part of a company that’s tackling the tough questions and really making good on its mission to address global warming head on.

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Sustainable Plastics: Oxymoron or Responsible Approach?

Mikhail Davis

A new vision for plastics: green chemistry, the circular economy, and a climate fit for life.

When reviewing recent news about plastic waste filling the oceans, toxic additives leaching from plastic products, and the impacts of fossil fueled global warming, making a plastic product – like Interface’s modular flooring – sustainable can begin to seem like an impossible task. But resolving that contradiction has been at the heart of Interface’s sustainability mission for over 20 years. As Ray Anderson often said, “If we can do it, maybe anyone can.”

In this spirit, Interface convened a group of stakeholders at a Sustainable Plastics Symposium in San Francisco this summer, including experts in green chemistry, the circular economy, and life cycle assessment (LCA). Symposium participants came together around a shared goal of creating a set of criteria to define sustainable plastics in a holistic way that goes beyond a Red List approach.

If only making a plastic product healthy and sustainable were as easy as making sure it had no Red List ingredients!

Sustainable Plastics Symposium: Intro to Sustainable Plastics

Green Chemistry

Dr. Lauren Heine of Northwest Green Chemistry, known for developing the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and the EPA’s Cleangredients database, started off the expert panel by showing three NGO efforts to define sustainable materials. Each effort uses different terms, but all agree that in addition to using safer chemicals in products and processes, we need to consider the ability to reuse a product at end-of-life and its overall environmental impact or we’ll have exchanged one problem for another.

Circular Economy

Dr. Mike Biddle, known for developing the world’s first at-scale mixed plastic recycling technology as founder of MBA Polymers, emphasized that plastics are often the best material choice for lightweight and durable performance. However, unless the disastrous impacts of plastic waste filling the oceans can be solved, plastic products can never be sustainable. Biddle pointed out that while most plastics are technically recyclable, very few actually get reclaimed or recycled in a circular economy. According to Biddle, using recycled plastic not only keeps it out of the oceans, but also allows us to have all the performance advantages of plastic with 80-90% less energy use (and 2-4 tons less contribution to global warming per ton of recycled plastic).

Sustainable Plastics Symposium: It's All About the Carbon

Embodied Carbon

Kirsten Ritchie, Sustainable Design Principal at Gensler, shared her pioneering work using LCA data from Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to guide product selection. She emphasized that EPDs allow designers to understand the contribution the products they select have to global warming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and other experts, nothing is more important to public health right now than stopping global warming. Ritchie’s analysis showed that carbon footprints of carpet tiles vary by over 2X within a single manufacturer’s line and by as much as 5X between manufacturers.

Connie Hensler, Interface’s Director of Life Cycle Assessment Programs, then used the type of criteria described by Heine, Biddle, and Ritchie to demonstrate that once we look at plastic products holistically, we may come to new conclusions. As an example, Interface’s standard GlasBac carpet tile products contain 9-10% PVC plastic in their backing, which is one of the few petrochemical plastics included on the Living Building Challenge Red List. But after more detailed analysis, well-managed PVC turns out to be the best choice for modular plastic flooring.

Sustainable Plastics Symposium: Responsible LVT

Interface carpet tiles on GlasBac backing:

  • Green Chemistry: Interface has eliminated all formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, and fluorocarbons from these products while reducing the amount of virgin PVC consumed to make a tile by 57%.
  • Circular Economy: Interface has designed a 3rd party-verified closed loop system for this backing. We process millions of pounds of vinyl backing every year into new GlasBacRE carpet tile backing. Products on GlasBacRE contain 80-89% recycled content and no virgin PVC.
  • Life Cycle Assessment of Environmental Impact: Interface products on GlasBac and GlasBacRE have the lowest average carbon footprint of any standard carpet tile platforms in the US as a result of very high recycled plastic content and the use of 96% renewable energy in manufacturing.

A New Approach to Sustainable Plastics

The goal of the Sustainable Plastics Symposium in San Francisco was to begin to engage subject matter experts and other stakeholders in creating an approach that moves the marketplace past outdated ways of product assessment that can create unintended and regrettable trade-offs. If an entire “system” for determining how healthy and sustainable a plastic product is consists of single question (“Is it PVC or non-PVC?”), a product may end up being selected that contributes to other types of toxicity, will never be recycled, and contributes disproportionately to global climate change. At the end of the day, this product’s only “green” claim will be “PVC-free” or perhaps “Red List Free.” Those who participated in the Symposium aspire to see plastic products do much, much more.

We’re committed to developing tools that will help our customers choose the best plastic products. This commitment will lead us to host other symposiums and participate in other forums. Recently, Interface joined a historic panel discussion at the Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh, Pa. to discuss the future of PVC plastic with leaders from Perkins+Will, Healthy Building Network, Tarkett, and Construction Specialties. We’re working to identify a path for improving PVC production and use today while looking toward a future where products are made without virgin petrochemical plastics.

Interface shares the vision of the Living Product Expo: a future where products make the world better, not just less toxic, less wasteful, or less polluting. And we have confidence that products like ours can be part of that positive future. If Interface can make a plastic product that is free of petrochemicals, removes plastic from the oceans, and helps create a climate fit for life, maybe anyone can.

 

To see an illustrated summary of the topics discussed at the Sustainable Plastics Symposium, please reference the slides below:

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Actions Speak Louder than Labels

David Gerson

Sustainability isn’t easy. Although some product labels claim to be an indicator of health and/or environmental performance, many have little or no evaluation of the ultimate environmental or health impacts of a product. So, a label with a few check boxes does not necessarily mean that one product is more “sustainable” or “healthy” than another. For example, did you know that at the basic levels of Cradle to Cradle or Living Product Certifications, there are no requirements for renewable energy use or carbon footprint reductions, or even recycling? We need more than what these labels provide.

At Interface we have recently achieved a new third-party certification from GreenCircle Certified, LLC called the Certified Environmental Facts Label. This provides the highest standard and best product evaluation tool we know of in the industry. Recycled content, water usage, renewable energy and carbon footprint are listed in a simple format akin to USDA nutrition labels. Only when we know the facts and science, can we make good decisions for our health and our planet.

Interface Factories to Zero GreenCircle label

Interface Products to Zero GreenCircle label

But for all of the data and numbers in GreenCircle, one metric rises above the rest: Carbon Footprint. If you focus on carbon, everything else falls into place – recycled content, toxicity, renewable energy, water usage, health and safety through the entire value chain, etc. AND, it addresses the most important issue of our time, climate change.

Our comprehensive approach to sustainability on all fronts has enabled us to achieve the lowest carbon footprint in our industry. In fact, it is over three times lower than another flooring product in our industry that has achieved the Living Product Certification.

Interface carbon footprint

So, while achieving sustainability and keeping business as usual may not be easy, it is easy to see who is doing the most to halt climate change and reduce their carbon footprint. If we are all successful in this fight, then we’ll be well on our way to creating a more equitable and healthy future for everyone.

Ask every manufacturer for their third party verified Certified Environmental Facts Label.

For more on how we’re looking at taking the carbon footprint from 7kg to -2kg, view our Proof Positive tile, part of our new Climate Take Back mission

To learn how climate change affects human heath, go to: https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/

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Building a Sustainable Future

Rick Ridgeway

This is a guest blog post from Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Public Engagement at Patagonia, Inc. On April 6, Interface’s Erin Meezan participated in an ISSP webinar with Rick Ridgeway, of Patagonia, and John Tran, of Unilever.

As a follow-up to this webinar, we wanted to answer some questions we could not get to in the short time frame. One follows below, answered by Ridgeway.

What is Patagonia’s outlook towards sustainable buildings?
One of our corporate bylaws (and benefit purposes) is ‘conduct operations with no unnecessary harm.’ A large part of this corporate mandate applies to our own operations, so we take our own footprint and ‘cleaning up our own act first’ very seriously. We always try to minimize the impacts of our buildings to the greatest extent possible. For example, for retail stores we use repurposed materials from local sources as much as possible for store build-outs; at our Ventura campus we have solar panels and bioswales; and at our Reno distribution center we have a unique ‘air flush’ system that pumps cool air in at night to naturally regulate the temperature of the building.

Patagonia solar panels

Solar panels installed at the Patagonia headquarters. Photography courtesy of Patagonia. Credit: Tim Davis.

But, we also know what we are constrained at times, since we don’t own many of our locations, but rather are long-term tenants. So, we don’t have full control over the building systems or characteristics in many places. We try to approach each of our locations individually in context and see what we can do that is most feasible and impactful. We recently adopted a set of ‘Sustainable Building Principles’ that is largely based off of the International Living Futures Institute’s ‘Living Building Challenges’ criteria for sustainable buildings. These are principles that guide our building design and operations and integrated into our facilities, retail, and operations teams to implement.

For more information on Patagonia’s sustainable buildings, please visit: www.patagonia.com/resource-use.html

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Shifting the Game

Nadine Gudz

“Are you really a carpet company?” asked the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat. “I am just so inspired by what you are doing and that is an unexpected outcome of being here this afternoon.”

That’s just one of the comments I heard during an event that Interface and the David Suzuki Foundation convened in Toronto with an esteemed group of leaders from across many business sectors, including commercial real estate, energy, tech, banking, building and construction.

Our goal was to facilitate a dialogue with these leaders to spark new thinking and challenge one another to raise our ambition levels to address climate change. As we embark on our Climate Take Back mission, we’re eager to partner with other thought-leading, reputable, influential organizations to advance our thinking on carbon.

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Long time champion of the environment and world-renowned geneticist, Dr. David Suzuki opened with reflections on some of the first science-based research and early predictions he had seen on global warming in the 1970s and 80s. He lamented the slow, detrimental pace to address the largest issue facing humanity while atmospheric carbon continues to reach unprecedented levels. He reinforced how governments don’t tend to be the pioneers of change and that the business community has an opportunity to leverage its influence and innovate.

“We need to shift the game!” Dr. Suzuki exclaimed during his opening speech. He pointed to Ray Anderson as an example of a unique visionary who fundamentally understood the interconnectedness of life on Earth and redesigned his business accordingly. Sustainability just makes good business sense on a finite planet. Dr. Suzuki talked about Ray’s original vision for climbing Mount Sustainability to zero footprint and the relevance it still holds today for the business community.

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I found it quite meaningful to have the opportunity to reflect on the evolution of our journey with a thoughtful, iconic ambassador of the environment like Dr. Suzuki. He has been a long-time supporter of Interface. At the age of 81, Dr. Suzuki remains one of the world’s strongest, most passionate and insightful champions of sustainability.

Members of the audience asked for his perspective on the current political climate and how this will impact needed advancements. Dr. Suzuki said he refuses to lose hope and referred to US President Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord as a gift to the rest of the world. The galvanizing of efforts around the world, including governments and business leaders stepping up to form new alliances and coalitions tells a very hopeful story.

Following Dr. Suzuki’s opening, Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat passionately reinforced how citybuilding is key to a healthy climate future. Addressing tensions between needs and wants is part of the challenge. She stressed the importance of learning to live “smaller,” drawing lessons from New York City where residents are among city dwellers living with the smallest environmental footprints in North America.

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I then had the honour of joining a panel discussion with Jennifer Keesmaat and Lisa Bate, green building guru and principal with B+H Architects, to share perspectives from industry and the building community. How do we go beyond zero carbon? Believing it’s possible is the first step. The group acknowledged that this can be hard when dominant media messaging is doom and gloom and explored the need to reframe the conversation. We have an opportunity to create the future that we want, but we start by asking what that looks like. Creating a climate fit for life needs more than the energy transition. It’s time to broaden our understanding of the carbon opportunity and shift it from a liability to a resource.

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In addition to sharing our Climate Take Back plan and Proof Positive prototype tile, the panel shared other examples of solutions underway, including Canadian innovations like Carbon Cure. Carbon Cure technology recycles waste carbon dioxide into greener, more affordable concrete products.

My biggest takeaway? Dr. Suzuki echoed what climate leaders said in our recent survey to climate leaders: business as usual is a barrier to creating a climate fit for life. The solutions exist and they are starting to shift the game, cultivating a new wave of climate optimism. Game on!

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