How to take a first step in sustainability Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2011
How to take a first step in sustainability

For sustainability to have a significant impact on your business, it has to live throughout your organization. You’ll see meaningful change when both the leadership and the culture of your company are engaged, not just when you apply sustainability to your products or processes. But you have to start somewhere, right?

Greening your business is not just about making a statement on Earth Day or on your website, it’s about looking at your core business from a new perspective. Rather than be overwhelmed by a wholesale sustainability program that may or may not resonate with your organization or your marketplace, start by doing just one thing.

That’s what textiles designer David Oakey of Pond Studios in LaGrange, Ga., decided to do when Interface Inc., the commercial carpet company (of which I am a part), first headed down the path to zero environmental footprint. Oakey found himself frustrated by the new vision for his client — all that he could see when he thought about “greener” carpet was hemp and wool, and he knew that wasn’t going to cut it with the company’s commercial customers. Almost in desperation, he said, “Let’s just try one thing — in the spirit of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ we’ll try using less of the petroleum-derived nylon in the tufted face of the carpet.”

It was a small thing in some respects — if it didn’t look good or perform well, it could be checked off as a failed experiment. But at the same time, it was a bit radical; nylon makes a significant contribution to the environmental footprint of carpet. Carpet face weights, or the amount of “fuzzy” stuff on the face of a carpet tile, were long believed to indicate quality. Chintz on the nylon and your product screams “cheap,” or so it was believed.

Flash-forward several months and several rounds of tinkering with new ways of tufting the yarn tighter and the one-ounce-lower face weight was an enormous win for Interface — more intelligence, less stuff. Not only was the difference negligible in terms of appearance, the lower face weight actually performed better in appearance and retention tests. Today, the average InterfaceFLOR carpet tile is more than 4 ounces lighter than it was in 1994.

Importantly, the experiment turned into a huge win in terms of innovation and inspiration. “What can we do next?” his design team asked, eager to get further outside the box and explore the possibilities.

It was the same for The Coca-Cola Co. when they started down the road to sustainability, but for them it wasn’t dematerialization; it was water footprinting that made the most sense. Integral to the beverage business and at the top of the world’s list of scarce resources, water — and understanding the impacts on the company’s core business — was a logical place to start, and a place from which a great deal of innovation and inspiration has sprung.

You could argue that Nike, on the other hand, is in the business of innovation — strong, lighter, faster, better, to quote their House of Innovation site. Green Xchange is not a program for recycling your old running shoes — though they do that, too — it’s a collaboration between Nike and Creative Commons to create a digital repository where intellectual property related to sustainability can be shared. Again, looking at the core business leads to innovation and inspiration, this time on a potentially world-changing level. And again, these are initiatives that strike at the core of a company, not on the fringe.

When Interface first began our journey, companies like Coke and Nike were just starting out, too, and there wasn’t much of a road map for any of us to follow. Stories like the ones I’ve shared here help you start, but if you want to take a deep dive into how a business can do it, pick up a copy of Interface founder and Chairman Ray Anderson’s book, “Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.” It’s not only a how-to, it’s a “why-to.”

Jim Hartzfeld is managing director of InterfaceRAISE, the peer-to-peer sustainability consultancy of Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. Reach him at jim.hartzfeld@interfaceraise.com.