Inspired by Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson had spent the previous 15 years transforming his company from an oil-dependent business into one that was well on its way to being carbon-neutral. The challenge spurred innovation. Rather than adding costs, it added savings in avoided costs that tallied $400,000 million by 2009. That extra capital not only paid for the transformation, but also provided a cushion during an economic downturn. Sales in the early 2000s fell 17%, but the industry on average lost well over 30%. Indeed, the company gained market share and emerged from the recession poised for dramatic growth.
Economists are now predicting the next recession on the horizon, Anderson's message is more timely than ever: Energy savings drop to the bottom line, with significant competitive advantage. "It dispels a myth," he said, "this false choice between the environment and the economy."
Last year strolling the showrooms at NeoCon, a massive interior design trade show held every June at Chicago's Merchandise Mart, it was hard to find a company that didn't have a green story to tell. This was a striking change from a few years earlier and it all tracked back to Anderson's epiphany. Given the immensity of the contract furnishings market—carpets, chairs, desks, lighting, wall coverings—the collective clout of manufacturers to move the dial toward sustainability is substantial.
Of course now that everybody's on the same green page, Interface is pushing the limits again. Carbon neutral is no longer enough—not when atmospheric carbon levels are higher than they have been for millions of years. If the planet is to remain habitable for humans, then carbon must be syphoned out of the air and stored elsewhere. If you are Interface, then a logical option would be to store it in the floor.
A guiding principle of the company's Climate Take Back™ campaign is to "stop seeing carbon as the enemy, and start using it as a resource." In other words, to begin to behave like a plant and use carbon as a valuable input. Expanding on the metaphor, in partnership with Janine Benyus' Biomimicry Institute, Interface is also in the midst of reimagining the manufacturing paradigm, modeling the factory of the future on a a forest.
Innovation comes in many forms. At Interface it includes everything from sourcing Nylon 6 yarn from Aquafil, a pioneer in recycled materials, to redesigning the plumbing in its factories. Making carpet requires materials heated to high temperatures that are pumped throughout the factory in an elaborate system of pipes. Switching out to fatter pipes reduces friction so that smaller motors can be used, saving energy. Reconfiguring factory layouts so that pipes can connect at softer angles rather than 90° elbow joints further reduces friction. Savings drop to the bottom line with every utility bill, reducing production costs. These savings help make it possible for Interface, in its quest to reduce its carbon footprint, to buy carbon offsets and still produce a competitively-priced product.
It is rather remarkable to think a book that Ray C. Anderson read nearly a quarter century ago could make such a difference. The power of good ideas made real could save us yet.
• Manufacturing Goes Carbon Negative | Strategy + Business
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