A Look Inside The Design Industry’s Most Sustainable Company

In 5 minutes with Jay Gould, CEO of Interface, we learn everything from how companies should look at sustainability as a design problem to what having zero negative impact really means.

More than two decades ago – before, that is, watchwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘biosphere’ garnered attention – Interface declared a rather bold move. Seeking to achieve zero negative impact on the planet by 2020, ‘Mission Zero®’ was, and indeed still is, one of the architecture and design industry’s most daring initiatives. For the past twenty years Interface has collaborated with a host of brands, individuals and climate-driven teams to ensure that innovation was not solely the preserve of product development – but stretched across manufacture, material harvesting, and the desire to create sustainable business models which could embrace and push forward a range of alternative energy sources.

Now one generation later, Indesign Magazine’s David Congram sat down with Interface’s CEO, Jay Gould, to find out more about the ways in which Interface’s earth-positive mission has not only changed the landscape of design, but also changed the interactions between local communities and the global stage.

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CONGRAM: I understand that your role as CEO at Interface is and isn’t at the same time, very new to you. So I wanted to find out a little about how your relationship with Interface began?

GOULD: To lead a company like Interface is a really unique challenge. Interface is a great example of what I call a purpose-driven company. That is, you maintain strong brand and ethical values, but you also have to perform. Because if you don’t perform, it puts the entire company in jeopardy. Because Interface is an incredibly valuable brand to many sectors and because our primary competitors would love to own us, we have to stay independent by making sure our market value is high enough it wouldn’t be attractive to undermine that position. So finding that balance between being purpose driven but performance oriented is important. I think that’s something our Founder, Ray Anderson, did an incredible job with – finding that right balance.

CONGRAM: Absolutely – he left a very resilient legacy in that regard. However, does striking that balance at times become incredibly difficult? And especially in different international markets?

GOULD: Yes it definitely does! In such situations, that’s where the board is constantly required to balance trade-offs: the end-goal purpose versus short-term gains. For example, we spend about a third of our annual revenue on sustainability initiatives. I don’t know another company that comes close to that. But we are willing to make investments to create better business models. As an example, we use fishing nets to recycle into our carpet flooring systems. It’s more expensive to recycle used nets than buying virgin nylon – but that’s almost beside the point, really. In this specific case, we made a short-term trade-off in profits to build better, more ethical and eventually more profitable business models. […] I always ask myself: what’s the horizon you’re trying to build the company towards? If you’re on a one or two year horizon, it’s a really different conversation than if you’re on a 20 year horizon.

CONGRAM: Speaking of long-term horizons, Interface has consistently proven itself to be a forward-thinking brand to an almost unmatched degree. Particularly in the space of sustainability, were these longer-term horizons always front of mind?

GOULD: Yes they were – and actually very early on too. So early, in fact, that we didn’t even know what word to use then! So it was in late 2000 or early 2001 that our first really concerted effort – Mission Zero® – really took form. The first six or seven years was really about ‘okay, let’s create the roadmap for how we attack sustainability.’ And then we made the official commitment to Mission Zero® in late 2000.

CONGRAM: And it’s approaching 20 years on now. So what are some key milestones that you’ve reached along the Mission Zero® journey?

GOULD: Well if you look at the data, the challenge to get to zero negative impact required us to make movements on a couple of big metrics.  So one of the metrics is the use of renewable energy. Today, 87% of the energy we use globally comes from renewable sources. That’s an incredible number! We have had a 95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. We have had 90% reduction in the waste that we send to landfill[SW1] . An 86% reduction in the use of water.

CONGRAM: That’s staggering – and across the board, too!

GOULD: Yes, they’re incredible metrics. But this is also why I’m confident now that we are going to make it to Mission Zero® by 2020.

CONGRAM: But I understand that even if you do achieve this, it’s still not the end of the journey?

GOULD: “Journey” is the perfect word for it. Sustainability is a never-ending journey, not a ‘goal’ as many appear to believe.  Over the last 20 years, we have been tireless in encouraging others to join us on this journey. We’ve influenced a lot of companies – I mean companies like Google and Apple, Walmart and Coca Cola – to study our business model. With that plan, I called together Ray’s original Eco Dream Team to share with them this news. I was really excited to say ‘hey we are going to make it!’ And Paul Hawken looked at me and said: ‘that’s not enough.’

“Across the architecture and design industry, there is still a lot of green washing that goes on and it’s very frustrating for a company like us. For Interface, sustainability is not and never will be a question of marketing […]” – Jay Gould.

CONGRAM: So this was the point at which your collective intention was to actually bring carbon from the atmosphere and sequester that back into your products, and as a result back into the earth?

GOULD: Yes, that’s exactly right. After approximately six or nine months of study, it began to look viable – and what’s more, likely, that we could achieve it. [… The technologies] available to take on such a large problem that faces us all are not affordable but we need to really release human ingenuity on solving the problem. We have taken so long trying to convince people there is a problem (and we continue to do so in politics, in commerce, in entertainment and media) but we have spent insufficient time saying ‘okay, how are we as humans going to do something about this?’

CONGRAM: And on that point of … what does Paul call it? ‘Climate optimism?” … Have you noticed whether across all of your global operations there any particular locations that are really seeing the effects of ‘climate optimism?’

GOULD: In each one of our locations around the world we are doing different types of experiments to first continue the journey of Mission Zero® and then go beyond to push its influence. So, as an example, our European business is really aggressive because of increasing demand – but, our manufacturing locations have already demonstrated that we can operate at zero, and continue to lead the way in that respect. Actually Australia is leading the way on some of our initiatives beyond 2020. We conducted a design experiment that we called Factories as a Forest. Essentially, we are working toward a goal of our factories operating as an active member of the ecosystem in which they exist. It asks directly important questions like: how can we be a positive member of that local ecosystem or biosphere?

“Interface, while global in operations and reach, operates like a single organism. For example, right now the learning that has arisen from Australia is being applied to reimagining our manufacturing plants in the United States. Each piece of the Interface universe operates in a way that will best maximise on our overall learning.” – Jay Gould.

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In the first few pages of Paul Hawken’s new Drawdown, he asks a very confronting (but no less important question). Is climate change being done TO you or FOR you? On the face of it, it does seem like a rather flippant question. But what is entailed therein is beyond significant.

If climate change is being done TO us, a culture of guilt, fear and panic ensues. Our responses become reactionary. Our intentions – regardless of their relative ‘goodness’ –  arrive too late. Our actions are those of crisis-mongering and, all too often, self-fulfilling prophecies of defeat. But, if climate change is being done FOR us, suddenly we bring ourselves to task. We seek opportunities to remove ourselves from complicity by analysing, reimagining and improving. We release our ingenuity on the problem.

Recognising that climate change is something that has been done FOR us is, at least in the opinion of this writer, one of Interface’s crowning achievements. Innovation followed optimism, and optimism started to become contagious. As other corporations and industries join Interface on their journey, we are beginning to see a revolution gain traction. Our collective industries are becoming the most powerful force on the global stage, conceiving new frontiers for best practice, and influencing by example those governmental bodies that hold the responsibility to translate this example into legislation.

“We must, and we can … and we continue to solve climate change. It’s that simple. And that difficult. But, at Interface, we need to bring people toward a solution. Our optimism inspires progress – and will continue to do so.” – Jay Gould.

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