One of the most powerful learnings we have experienced as a company is the realization that our progress, which has been substantial, is not nearly as compelling as the stories of how our business (and our culture) has been transformed by employee engagement in a shared vision. Let me tell you a story to show you what I mean.
Interface has tracked our metrics since 1996. Since then, we have cut greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent, cut fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent, cut waste to landfill by 82 percent and cut water use by 82 percent. During that same period, we’ve avoided more than $430 million in costs, increased sales by 63 percent and more than doubled earnings. We couldn’t do it without the substantial engagement of our employees.
Those metrics, married with a few financials, will certainly cause the profit-minded among us to take note, and there is no doubt that our employees and other stakeholders feel a great deal of pride in that progress. But let’s tell that story another way.
A representative from a very large American multinational food company was visiting the InterfaceFLOR factory in LaGrange, Ga., along with some of her colleagues, to understand how we actually make money by shouldering our environmental responsibilities. To say that she was skeptical about what they could learn from a carpet company was a huge understatement.
During a break, she went walking on the factory floor and lost her way. A forklift driver who was transporting a big roll of carpet stopped to offer assistance.
She asked, “What do you do here?”
“Ma’am,” he said, “I come to work every day to help save the earth.”
Stunned by his answer, she asked more questions. Finally, he said, “Ma’am, I don’t want to be rude, but if I don’t get this roll of carpet off to the next process right now, our waste and emissions numbers are going to go up. I’ve gotta go.”
She returned to our conference room visibly different, and no one knew why. As the day wore on, she became more engaged and finally shared her story, saying that she had never before seen such a deep alignment of vision in an organization. The only word she could use to describe it was “love.”
Maybe love is too strong a word for your culture today, but can you imagine how your business might be impacted by people caring so deeply?
Let’s face it, in the YouTube world we live in today, we are more empowered than ever to tell our stories. How do you harness storytelling to move your sustainability journey forward?
Think first about aspirational stories — stories that help describe where you want to go. For these, you might look outside your organization. Then look inside your organization for stories that may not necessarily be connected to sustainability, but that illustrate the best you’ve ever been as a company. Maybe it was when you came together for a critical deadline or saw a breakthrough idea go live. Dig deep and bring those characteristics to light. Through this process, called appreciative inquiry, you’ll recall what makes your team “work,” and it will be that much easier to apply those characteristics to your sustainability journey.
Once you have been on the path for a while, continue to chronicle not only your progress but also how it is changing you, individually and collectively. Even though Interface has been on the journey longer than most — 17 years — we find that it is not only desirable but also necessary to keep the storytelling alive. As our organization has grown and changed, our story is evolving. Stories foster a sense of purpose, bind us to one another, help us to find the points where we connect and can accelerate cultural transformation.
While data is absolutely necessary to inform carbon footprints, waste audits and life cycle assessments, we have found that a good story can be more powerful at driving progress than any spreadsheet. Who are your best storytellers? Put them with the scientists and engineers and the magic that is transformation can begin.
Jim Hartzfeld is managing director of InterfaceRAISE, the peer-to-peer sustainability consultancy of Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com