When Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface, first articulated his sustainability vision, employees and investors were skeptical, but it was actually a competitor who said what everyone was thinking, “Has Ray gone ‘around the bend?’”
Anderson’s response was vintage entrepreneur: “Yes, I’ve gone around the bend,” he told a gathering of Interface people. “That’s my job — to see what’s next. The last time I went around the bend, I found the technology to make carpet tile, and that’s worked out pretty well for us, hasn’t it?”
Chances are your company wasn’t born with sustainability in its DNA. And whether you’re coming to the green movement by choice or necessity, you likely already know that pursuing a lower impact business model is a real game-changer. Those of you experienced in organizational change know that once your perspective is radically altered, you see things through a new lens.
That’s what it’s like when sustainability becomes part of your organization’s mission. You have a new perspective on everything in your product or service’s life cycle — how you design and source materials, how you manufacture your product or deliver your service, and what happens at the end of your product’s useful life — will you reclaim it and use it again? As you begin to rethink everything, it hits you: You have to rethink everything.
Radical thinking starts with radical questions — not radical edicts. Good questions can stimulate new thinking and naturally encourage dialogue. Dialogue can lead to good ideas or, in the best-case scenario, a transformative vision.
That’s where senior management support — what we call “permission to pursue” — comes in. Setting the tone at the top communicates that that big ideas are a priority. And while it might initially be overwhelming, don’t hesitate to set bold, audacious goals. A NASA engineer once told us that after the first Apollo series of moon shots, morale at NASA was at an all-time low. When asked why, he said that President Kennedy’s challenge, to put a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the ’60s, turned out to be too easy. Kennedy’s seemingly ambitious vision was not ambitious enough. Having succeeded, NASA had no other big idea to inspire them.
Once you have set your sights high, “permission to fail” becomes just as important as “permission to pursue.” New thinking, by its very nature, is speculative. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” And while it was GM and not Ford that gave us the EV1, without it, we may not have the choices we have today when it comes to alternative-fuel vehicles. And if it weren’t for the before-its-time Newton (one of the first PDAs, created by Apple), we might not have smartphones and iPads today.
It’s said that the status quo is a powerful opiate, and if you’ve ever been inclined to say, “That’s always how we have done it,” then you know it’s true. One potential outcome of your new perspective is the idea that you should actually stop doing something — not just do it differently or better but actually stop doing it. It was true for Interface when we learned how energy- and water-intensive our original process for printing carpets was — we just stopped doing it. We had to find another way to build color and pattern into our floor coverings — an exercise that led to innovations too numerous to list here.
The rationale we’ve applied to thinking about sustainability could be applied to just about any situation where you’re trying to pursue a new business model. But consider motivation and outcomes for pursuing sustainability: using fewer natural resources to produce higher quality, better-performing goods or services, and to make your customers a part of your supply chain by designing reclamation and reuse into your system. All of this comes while you’re engaging your work force in the opportunity to think differently, to embrace failure as a learning tool and to do it all in the name of future generations.
Jim Hartzfeld is managing director of InterfaceRAISE, the peer-to-peer sustainability consultancy of Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc.