If one were to look for a company that traversed the greatest arc of environmental transformation in the past 25 years, it would be Interface. The company gained a raft of learnings along the way, many of which are shared in its latest Sustainability Report. If there is an overriding teaching for the rest of the world, it would be how to set goals. Ray Anderson did something no CEO had done before him. He studied what would happen if industry continued its downward spiral of taking, making, and wasting, the impact on people, land, biodiversity, oceans, climate and our future. He was faithful to the facts, and unafraid to say that business as usual would lead to an unlivable future on an impoverished planet. Instead of initiating sustainability programs that would do less harm, he initiated goals that would eliminate harm altogether and that would, in time, reverse harm that has already occurred.
Many of his business colleagues saw him as being ahead of his skis, a bit dreamy, not in touch with the realities of what is required to run a publicly held company with shareholders alert to quarterly results, and that it was only a matter of time before his lofty goals would be brought down to earth. In fact, his goals were precisely down to earth. Those who judged him missed something remarkable that Ray foresaw: the fastest, truest way to bring forth creativity, imagination and innovation is unreasonable, impossible goals, objectives for which there are no known pathways. In other words, the trail to breakthrough begins with a simple admission, “I don’t know how to do this.” Even his own staff doubted his goals at times.
Here was the problem. Interface was an old-line industrial company that sucked up petroleum-based raw material for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its finished product lasted little more than decade. At that point it would be ripped out and discarded, merging annually with another 5 billion pounds of carpet that would remain in landfills for ten thousand years.
Unreasonable goals are forcing functions, an activity that forces you to take action and produce a result. And that is exactly what happened, the story of which is contained here. To say that Interface’s Mission Zero achievements are remarkable is a mild compliment when measured against the teamwork, ingenuity, and pluck that has informed this company for 25 years. Today, it has set a new goal, to reverse its global emissions of greenhouse gases and become carbon positive, to bring carbon back home to earth where it came from and where it belongs. This completely unreasonable goal is the only reasonable goal that makes sense for humanity, civilization and our planet. And now is the time. And Interface is, once again, leading industry to endeavors that were hitherto unimaginable. Ray’s legacy is alive and well.