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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.”
It seems like everybody is getting on the eco bandwagon. From your corner dry cleaner to the largest companies in the world, sustainability is a hot topic that is fast becoming a mainstream business issue. However, the degree to which a company is able to leverage sustainability for real return for the company and for the planet varies significantly depending on where it lives in the organization.
For some companies, it’s all about eco-efficiency an engineering or technology challenge, a retooling of process or product to get that green product launched. For others, it is a grassroots, employee-based initiative, focused on energy-saving actions like turning off lights and carpooling. Maybe it is a new marketing campaign, repositioning products in a new light. Many companies have appointed a vice president of sustainability to elevate the issue within the organization.
While each of these activities may be important, taken individually, they have nowhere near the transformative power that sustainability has when it is woven into the fabric of everything a company does. Take the grassroots approach. When people first get on board, they typically put in recycling bins and throw out all of the Styrofoam, but these actions aren’t part of a coherent, unifying plan. In the end, these “random acts of greenness” (to quote green business journalist Joel Makower) don’t add up to the level of impact needed to improve your organization’s or the planet’s bottom line. Over time, people get lax and forget which bin is which, and eventually, disposables creep back in to the mix.
On the other hand, consider the company where a grassroots, employee-based initiative catches the attention of the leadership team. Recycling and eliminating waste may become a part of the organization’s goals and are then elevated beyond the break room. Operational efficiencies are targeted next, and a plan to institutionalize new behaviors and new priorities emerges. Pretty soon, the company’s products become part of the transformation, and the company begins to reap both bottom- and top-line benefits.
It’s been my experience working with Interface, our parent company, and also with organizations with whom we consult, that sustainability is maximized when it lives throughout the organization. There’s no doubt that there’s a place for sustainability in the processes and products that define you, because that is where sustainability is applied, and it’s also where you will likely see the fastest return. But the really meaningful change the kind that will multiply or grow over time and see you through business cycles happens when you engage both the culture and the leadership of your organization. That trifecta culture, leadership and applied sustainability is the key to enduring and impactful change.
If you’re intrigued, have an experience to share or are already started on the journey, I’d love to hear from you.
Jim Hartzfeld is founder and managing director of InterfaceRAISE, the sustainability consultancy of Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.