Interface’s sustainability journey began in 1994 when customers started asking us questions about the environmental impact of our company and the fate of the used carpet we manufactured. Our founder, the late Ray Anderson, heard these questions and knew that we did not have any compelling answers. Interface complied with environmental laws. What more should we be doing as a publicly traded, for-profit global manufacturer of petroleum-intensive carpet tile?
Upon reading “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken, Anderson was struck by Hawken’s assertion that business has brought us to the brink of environmental degradation, and we can’t rely on government to save us, the power of business must find solutions.
Anderson, an entrepreneur and industrial engineer, took Hawken’s suggestions seriously and on August 31st, 1994, launched Interface towards the vision “To be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: People, process, product, place and profits — by 2020 — and in doing so we will become restorative through the power of influence.”
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ray Anderson’s epiphany, we reflect on the evolution of the sustainability movement and on the 20 years we have been on our sustainability journey.
In the early days, product manufacturers dealt with environmental issues by switching from virgin raw materials to recycled content, and focused on improving energy and water efficiency. Eco labels were developed to certify the ‘green’ attributes of products, and some even ventured to evaluate the manufacturing process as well. Life was simple and straightforward.
At Interface, our focus on sustainability introduced us to new tools for looking at our products and processes. We began to understand that the environmental impacts of our products extend far beyond the four walls of our factories. In order to produce the raw materials to make carpet, resources are extracted from the earth, refined and processed to make the components that we assemble into carpet. Transportation of raw materials and finished goods consumes diesel fuel and releases tailpipe emissions. Maintenance and cleaning of carpet requires vacuuming which uses electricity generated from power plants, releasing emissions and generating waste.
In 2000, Interface started using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a decision-making tool to better understand the full environmental impacts associated with the entire life cycle of our products, from raw material extraction and processing, manufacturing, use, transportation, and end of life. LCA considers the energy and material inputs and the emissions and waste outputs for every process and step along the entire supply chain. This analysis provides a more comprehensive view of the full impact our products have on the environment.
LCA shows the environmental implications of choosing different materials or making products in different ways and also shows the environmental trade-offs you might make. LCA allows us to look at making products in fundamentally different ways, allowing us to see a product or process at all stages.
In the late 1990s when redesigning our products to meet our sustainability goals, our carpet designer suggested eliminating one ounce of nylon fibre from the top of the carpet, and found no loss in performance or quality. Using LCA to study the effect of using one ounce less fibre across our entire annual production, calculations showed that the energy not expended in the production of additional nylon was equivalent to the energy consumption by Interface’s two Georgia production facilities for six months. This ‘embodied energy’ of the nylon fibre, calculated using LCA, was a new lens for viewing environmental impacts.
And thus began Interface’s commitment to searching for deeper understanding of the impact of our company and products and sharing these learnings with our customers through full product transparency.
LCA illustrates that the largest contribution to the environmental impact of our carpet is not attributable to our own manufacturing processes, but instead nearly 70% is a result of the extraction and processing of raw materials, of which nylon fibre accounts for a majority. With our eyes open to the full life cycle impacts, our sustainability strategy shifted. A new focus targeted dematerialization and reducing the use of raw materials per square yard of carpet, especially materials like nylon that have a high embodied energy. Starting in 2009, our nylon fibre suppliers figured out how to make nylon carpet fibre from post-consumer nylon. Using recycled materials significantly reduces the embodied energy and environmental impacts. Today, many Interface carpet styles use 100% recycled nylon fibre, reducing embodied energy by over 40% compared to a carpet made with only 11% recycled content in the nylon fibre.
As the sustainability movement has grown over the last 20 years, eco labels have proliferated, with over 400 in existence, thus overwhelming the market with too many labelling programs. Architects, designers, and building owners no longer rely solely on these external assertions, and now want more access to very specific product information so they can make their own informed choices. The building industry is in the beginning stages of publishing nutrition-label like information through the creation of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), allowing us to make more informed decisions about the materials we select. EPDs are standardized life-cycle data disclosure tools often likened to the ingredient lists and nutrition facts labels found on food items, except you get data on such things as greenhouse gas emissions and water usage instead of calories and saturated fat. Any product can have an EPD, just like any kind of food can have a nutrition label, healthy or unhealthy.
Interface is committed to being a leader in the transparency movement. Interface was the first carpet manufacturer in North America to publish EPDs in 2009, and completed EPDs for all products globally by 2012. EPDs are developed according to guidelines from the International Standards Organization (ISO). EPDs follow a consistent format reporting raw material ingredients, life cycle assessment results, and are 3rd party verified. EPDs allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of products and in the carpet industry where many manufacturers have published EPDs, you can begin to identify what a ‘large’ or ‘small’ environmental impact footprint looks like across manufacturers, just as we understand the impact of 180 calorie candy bar on our health. EPDs can help you see the impact of choosing a carpet with 30 ounces of nylon fibre vs 20 ounces.
The EPD Transparency Summary is a two-page summary of the most critical data presented in an EPD, published and third-party verified by UL Environment, This concise document features our favourite nuggets of EPD data, including carbon footprint, water footprint, and product ingredients.
With the transparency of EPDs we are able to show some of the results of our 20 year journey towards sustainability, and the changes that have been made across our entire supply chain, to produce Interface carpet with lower environmental impact. Thereby offering our customers assurance that quantifiable data is available to support our green claims. This level of commitment is what is needed to further advance the sustainability movement.
Melissa Vernon is the Director of Sustainable Strategy for Interface in the Americas. She is responsible for maximizing business opportunities by strategically leveraging Interface’s leadership in sustainable development.
Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of the WAMOA Journal, courtesy of PTR Communications.