This article was jointly authored by Ms Esther Chang, Executive Director of Global Compact Network Singapore (GCNS), the Singapore local network of the United Nations Global Compact, and Ms Maxine Chen, Sustainability Communications Specialist (Asia Pacific) at Interface, Inc.
We have just ten years left to meet the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. While there has been progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), action has not been advancing at the speed or scale required to solve our world’s greatest challenges.
COVID-19 has set back progress on the SDGs and claimed over a million lives. It has revealed the fragilities of the world and has spotlighted the crucial role of businesses in creating just and thriving communities that respect, conserve and enhance our natural capital.
With that in mind, GCNS convened its annual Summit – which went virtual for the first time this year – around resetting, reimagining and rebuilding a more responsible future and the role businesses can play to advance this vision.
Additionally, in light of the approaching 2030 deadline to meet the SDGs, Ms Sanda Ojiambo, CEO & Executive Director, United Nations Global Compact launched its Decade for Decisive Action campaign during her closing keynote at the Summit. The campaign aims to galvanise the business community to take decisive steps towards advancing the SDGs. GCNS aims to help businesses take more ambitious and comprehensive action across their operations and value chains through capacity-building, the provision of sustainability tools and community-building efforts.
Over the three-day summit, over 1,000 attendees across the globe converged on a few important questions:
How can global business leaders pave the way in this Decade of Action and create commercial models that develop societies?
How can we make the idea of environmental sustainability more accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises?
How can we form unlikely partnerships across all sectors of society to rebuild a fairer world for everyone?
These key themes found their way into GCNS’s coffee chat with Ms Erin Meezan, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer of Interface, a signatory to the Ten Principles of the United Nations Global Compact, as part of the summit. The session was moderated by Mr Veerappan Swaminathan, Founder and Director of Sustainable Living Lab.
Established in LaGrange, Georgia in 1973, global commercial flooring company and environmental sustainability pioneer Interface has had an extensive presence in the Asia Pacific for three decades, with Singapore as its Southeast Asian centre of operations. It specialises in carbon neutral carpet tile and resilient flooring, including luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and nora® rubber flooring.
In 1994, inspired by its customers, Interface set out to eliminate its negative impact on the environment by 2020. Having delivered on its Mission Zero commitment, in part by becoming the first global flooring manufacturer to make its products carbon neutral across their full product life cycle, the company is now working on an even bolder mission – called Climate Take Back™ – to run its business in a way that helps reverse global warming and creates a climate fit for life. In fact, the UN Climate Change’s Momentum for Change initiative recently recognised Interface’s climate change leadership by naming the company a 2020 UN Global Climate Action Award winner.
Here are the key lessons we took away from this conversation:
Sustainable products don’t have to cost more
“It’s a total myth that sustainable solutions have to cost more every time,” said Erin, responding to a question from the audience on whether Interface products are more expensive because of the investments it has made in sustainability. The company’s early sustainability efforts to reduce manufacturing waste resulted in cost savings of US$405 million within the first 12 years. Initial changes to incorporate more recycled materials into the company’s products did come with higher raw material costs initially, but as it expanded its use of recycled materials, and its suppliers expanded their scale, costs came down. Interface has been able to reduce the carbon footprint of its products by over 60%, in part because of the use of recycled materials. It is now offering an industry first: products that are carbon neutral across their full lifecycle – and, at no extra cost to its customers.
The lesson is that manufacturers who are first movers usually encounter a short-term lag where innovative materials or a sustainability proposition might make the product more expensive in the first iteration. It is up to them to decide on how to allocate the cost. For Interface, this has included absorbing higher initial raw material costs and investing in verified carbon offset projects on behalf of its customers.
“We made a decision that our carbon neutral products would differentiate us enough from our competitors that we would get value back from them,” said Erin. “We don’t want to create a model where our customers are always paying more for sustainability.”
Sustainability requires bold ambition, participatory engagement and conversations with all stakeholders
Very early on, Interface set bold targets with Mission Zero. It did so by engaging and listening to a wide range of stakeholders including customers, external advisors and internal employees. Transparency being key, it also shared real time progress on its ambitions and where it made progress (or not) using its proprietary EcoMetrics tool. The company didn’t just share its progress – it demonstrated how it went about its journey. This helps to develop trust with stakeholders and helps to create more awareness about how being a sustainable company is possible.
Intergovernmental policy is not a panacea
“When the American president pulled out of the Paris Agreement, it was an amazing stimulus for businesses and state governments,” said Erin. “We finally took it off the table that someone at Paris Accord level was going to save us. And that was a great moment of optimism and action.” What followed was an unprecedented number of commitments from State and local governments as well as businesses to pledge to carbon emission reductions at the level of the Paris Agreement.
Across the globe, an increasing number of business players are realising that companies themselves play a major role in leading the way this Decade of Action for humanity to deliver on the SDGs.
Or as Veera aptly put it – “If you’re looking for a superhero, look in the mirror!”
For small or medium businesses looking to take environmental action, now is the time
A question that came up was how businesses that might not have the experience or financial leverage to invest in sustainable solutions could take steps towards making their organisations more sustainable.
“The good news is that whether you’re just starting out and have a small staff or you’re a part of a company that’s already committed to sustainability, there are lots of excellent tools and roadmaps you can draw on today,” Erin said. “When Interface first started on its journey, the SDGs didn’t exist. There was only a vague notion that we could continue to do what we were doing, as long as we were not harming future generations.”
It’s a different story today, where we are seeing a plethora of tools for businesses use and amplify, whether they may be looking to set goals or to forge pathways towards more sustainable business models. Companies can leverage on local networks like Global Compact Network Singapore, read up on case studies like Lessons for the Future: The Interface Guide to Changing Your Business to Change the World, or work within industry associations; companies have support and moreover, immense potential can be unlocked from partnerships.
“What companies really need is employees who are willing to be courageous enough to engage their senior leadership team on why these pathways are good,” said Erin.
“If you’re interested in sustainability, if you want to do this for a living, now is your time. We need you.”