Sustainable Growth - Interface, Inc.

Ray Anderson of Interface Inc. points the way to high profitability and zero waste -- a future that merges economic growth with social responsibility.

Ray Anderson has spent most of his life as an environmental vandal. He has devoted his career - the better part of four decades - to mastering the black magic of the 20th century: He takes huge lakes of petroleum and spins them into elegant brocades.

The petroleum, which took millions of years to make, is irreplaceable. The brocades - beautiful woven fabrics that carpet offices and corridors from the U.S. Capitol to MTV headquarters - will last forever. After just 10 years, most of that fabric will end up in the dump.

Indeed, Anderson's success has been marked by a kind of galloping enviro-gluttony. He is the 63-year-old founder and CEO of Interface Inc., an Atlanta-based company with 7,300 employees. Its business: turning petrochemicals into textiles. In 26 factories on four continents, Anderson's looms produce a million pounds of synthetic carpet and fabric every day - along with more than seven tons of air pollutants every year.

Ray Anderson is a certified captain of industrial capitalism. He is also becoming one of the nation's leading environmentalists, a radical who makes the folks from Greenpeace look timid.

Four years ago, Anderson made a decision that changed the course of his carpet company, and that could transform the nation's economy. He decided that Interface would become, as he put it, "the first fully sustainable industrial enterprise, anywhere." Anderson decided that his petrochemical conglomerate would become 100% environmentally benign.

His vision for the 21st century: Interface would no longer use virgin nylon yarn to stitch its fabrics. Interface's factories and offices would use power from renewable sources only. Interface would produce zero waste; indeed, it would reclaim its own products and use them as raw material for new textiles. And Interface would pull its suppliers and customers into its sustainability orbit, insisting that the products it bought be recyclable and nontoxic, pushing clients to think differently about carpeting - and about their own businesses. "I want to pioneer the company of the next industrial revolution," says Ray Anderson.

Anderson wants to turn the entire U.S. economy inside out. He wants to harness the awesome, triumphant engine of democratic capitalism to the task of fixing the environment - before that engine suffocates on its own waste. The concept is simple: For its first century, industrial capitalism has been obliviously, relentlessly linear: raw materials, energy, product, packaging, marketing, waste. In the century to come, Anderson wants business to evolve to the next level: cyclic capitalism. Companies would consume their own waste. Landfilllls, after a, are best seen as a yardstick of the failure of human ingenuity. In nature, there is no garbage; everyone's waste becomes someone else's food.

Anderson's thinking is so advanced, and the efforts at Interface are so far along, that Interface ranks as the most highly evolved big company in the country today. In terms of combining social responsibility and economic growth, no one comes close. At Interface, social responsibility and growth have become the same thing.

From 1995 to 1996, sales at the publicly traded company grew from $800 million to $1 billion. During that same period, the amount of raw materials used by the company dropped almost 20% per dollar of sales. Which means, says Anderson, "The world just saw the first $200 million of sustainable business."

Interface's performance shatters the idea that environmental stewardship is just another cost. During the first three years of the company's drive toward sustainability, from 1994 to 1997, its net income totaled about $84 million. During that time, the company saved $50 million - in reduced materials costs, reduced energy costs, and reduced waste. That money went to the bottom line, not to the dump.

Of course, you can't reinvent the modern industrial enterprise in just a year or two; it's not that easy to disconnect a giant company from a century's worth of supply arrangements and infrastructural habits. Interface still consumes 10,000 pounds of virgin nylon per hour, still trucks almost 30 tons of garbage to landfills per day, still sends 2.3 million pounds of CO2 into the air per week.

But a dramatic change has taken hold at the company. From the factory floor to the R&D lab, sustainability has become as important a consideration in every business decision as profitability. Interface, for instance, has developed a new idea about carpeting and customers: It wants to lease carpet instead of selling it. The company would make, install, and maintain the carpet, take it back from customers, and then turn the old carpet into new carpet.

Says John Picard, a corporate environmental consultant who helped Interface develop the leasing idea: "Ray Anderson is going to be one of those people you look back on and say, 'He changed the world.' Interface is the corporation of the 21st century."

Nylon Is Forever

the nylon molecule from which interface spins its carpet has two amazing properties: It is completely recyclable, and it is stable for eternity - which is why discarding it by the ton hardly makes sense. Still, there is a small flaw in Ray Anderson's plan to recycle carpet by leasing it and taking it back: Right now, it's neither feasible nor economical to turn carpet back into carpet.

Don Ellison, 50, a preacher-turned-factory manager, is explaining the problem at Interface's plant in West Point, Georgia. "Look at this beam of yarn," he says, pointing to a stainless-steel spool of yarn the size of a truck axle. The shining spool is meticulously wound with half a ton of yarn. "That beam has 205 'ends' of thread," says Ellison. "Five colors form a color pattern of 18 threads, repeated over and over." The 205 ends will be threaded into a large stitching machine and "tufted" into a lovely piece of tan carpeting flecked with turquoise and maroon. "Once you weave all this into carpet, stitched through and backed with latex, you can see the problem," says Ellison. "It's no easy task to take it apart, separate it, and use all those parts again."

True. But if recycling is hard, consider what it takes to make carpet. Helicopter out to the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Straight down, beneath 750 feet of water and 11,000 feet of bedrock, is an enormous lake of crude oil. Suck up some of that crude, wind it onto Ellison's stainless-steel bobbin, and weave carpet out of it. That's no easy task either. Indeed, seen from that vantage point, making carpet the modern way - using oil rigs, tankers, petroleum-cracking plants, pipelines, and nylon-spinning factories - seems improbable.

That's the shift in perspective that Anderson wants to cultivate. At Interface, the change is happening in two ways. First, across the company, employees are wringing out as much waste as possible. At its plant in LaGrange, Georgia, Interface used to send six tons of carpet trimmings to the landfill every day: ribbons of brand new carpet, made and discarded within hours. By reducing the unnecessarily generous comfort margins built into its production system, the factory has dramatically reduced its scrap. Since June of last year, the plant has sent no trimmings to the landfill. What scrap remains is recycled - much of it back into carpet. Net savings: 3 million pounds a year of indestructible carpet that is not sent to the dump.

At Guilford of Maine, a division of Interface, new computer controls on the boilers in a fabric factory reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 99.7%, from two tons a week to a couple of hundred pounds a year. The computer controls also improved the efficiency of the boilers by 23%, by minimizing human error and by monitoring temperatures more precisely.

Every Interface factory has similar stories. At Bentley Mills - a division in Los Angeles that makes luxurious, high-end carpet - the amount of scrap carpet wasn't even tracked until June 1996. When employees first measured the scrap, they discovered they were throwing away 2 running yards of carpet for every 100 yards they stitched. That's the equivalent of operating the factory two days a year, three shifts a day, and throwing all that carpet away. By the end of 1997, the scrap carpet had been cut by 30%.

The second change sweeping Interface is the company's determination to transform the way carpet is made and sold in the 21st century. At the moment, the Bentley Mills dye house, where carpet yarn gets its vivid colors, is still the kind of factory that Charles Dickens would recognize: cavernous, smelling of ammonia, with cauldrons radiating clouds of steam. Huge carts, stacked with carefully skeined yarn, are lined up everywhere. Some yarn is the whitish gray of raw thread; the rest presents a riot of color - mauve, aqua, tan, blue. The process of giving thread its color hasn't changed in 5,000 years. Put the thread in a pot that contains water and a dyeing agent. Boil it. Dry it.

At the Bentley Mills dye house, the cauldrons can handle 5,000 pounds of yarn at once; 10,000 gallons of water and dye are brought to a boil in a vat big enough to submerge a compact car. The yarn is dried in an oven the size of a small trailer house. It's a system that consumes an enormous amount of energy - and that could never be run on solar panels.

Around the corner in the dye house, workers are using a different method to color yarn. The raw yarn unspools through a couple of glass-enclosed boxes, through a small steam box, and then into a series of drying chambers. Then, fully colored, it spools back onto a cone at the end of the line. In that first set of boxes, dye is sprayed onto the moving strand of yarn. Excess dye is captured and constantly recycled. The steam chamber fixes the dye.

Each drying box is not much larger than a microwave oven. A strand of yarn speeds through it at 1,200 feet per minute.

"This is the first machine of its kind anywhere in the world," says Jim Harley, 39, the vice president of manufacturing at Bentley Mills. Compared with the boil-and-bake method - which, for the time being, Bentley Mills will continue to use at least partially - "this system uses 10% of the energy," says Harley. "Or less. At half the cost. And with this system, there is no wastewater or dye going into the sewer." And this system could run on solar panels.

The most visible step toward the kind of cyclic, sustainable company that Anderson envisions was taken at Interface's Guilford of Maine division. Guilford specializes in making the fabric that upholsters cubicles. Using fabric made from polyester fiber, which is delivered in 600-pound bales from a supplier, Interface upholsters half the office cubicles in the country.

"We've always used virgin polyester fiber," says Paul Paydos, 46, Guilford's vice president of technical services. But Guilford decided to produce cubicle fabric from recycled polyester - which had to be indistinguishable from the virgin polyester fabric in quality and price. It took about a year to make the change.

With the bargaining muscle that comes with making 15 million running yards of fabric a year, Guilford partnered with a South Carolina soda-bottle-recycling outfit to supply the plant with recycled polyester fiber that is chemically identical to the virgin product. Last June, Guilford looms started using the recycled polyester; by the end of the year, all the cubicle fabric was woven from old soda bottles.

Now Guilford is working with suppliers on an even more advanced step. "Our goal is to throw discarded cubicle fabric back in the smoking cauldron," Paydos says, "and have new polyester raw material come out."

Planting the New Economy

Ray Berard is a senior vice president in interface's R&D division, overseeing a dozen efforts to design carpet and fabric that can be pulled apart and turned into carpet again. But for Berard, a 60-year-old with a PhD in physical chemistry, who has worked at Celanese Corp. and Titleist & FootJoy Worldwide, one the most exciting projects involves all-natural commercial carpet.

"It's made of hemp," Berard says, "backed with natural fiber, using natural dyes. It looks good, and it feels good." To make the point, he displays a square sample located behind his desk. "And it has wicked strength," he says. Hemp "grows so fast, it keeps the weeds out. You don't need pesticides or herbicides. And when you're done with the carpet, you can take it, compost it completely, and use it to fertilize the next crop of hemp."

The only problem: Growing industrial hemp in the United States is illegal, because of its genetic relation to marijuana. For now, Berard is looking to Canada and Asia for supplies of hemp - he's already bought the harvest from 150 acres - and he hopes to start offering commercial hemp carpet later this year.

Berard's projects are part of the new world that Anderson envisions. They represent a radical leap from the way business is done now - involving different relationships and different ways of thinking about suppliers, customers, products, garbage, and raw material. But as Interface is proving every day, that world is very much within reach: Lease carpet instead of selling it - progress begins with an idea just that simple.

The human economy doesn't have to be the only one on Earth that generates garbage. Cyclic capitalism - a form of business that refreshes itself and the world around it - would fire the imaginations of those who make the current, more primitive capitalism thrive. And as Anderson says, "It's the right thing to do."

Charles Fishman cnfish@mindspring.com is a Fast Company contributing editor. You can visit Interface Inc. on the Web at http://www.ifsia.com

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • Peter Tapestry

    Ray Anderson has helped his company reduce their CO2 emissions by nearly 80% in just a few years. This significantly reduces the impact it makes on the environment. If more big companies could find a way to reuse or recycle their products and manage some degree of self-sustainability - and be willing to invest the time, effort and money as well - we would truly be on our way to cleaning up at least some of the "ungreen" mess we've made. This is a big leap, yet compared to the entire world is only a small step. Then again, every small step brings us closer to being greener.

    Peter - The Tapestry House