Worldwide Research role of leadership in integrating sustainability in core business and operations of companies – part 1.
On a sunny morning in August and in the midst of moving our offices from Rotterdam to Amersfoort, I am on my way to interview Lindsey Parnell, CEO of InterfaceFlor. I am excited about the visit since InterfaceFlor was one of the first companies worldwide to embrace sustainability in the early 90’s. This happened due to the epiphany of its leader Ray Anderson, who read The Ecology of Commerce (Paul Hawken) and realized that his business of producing and selling carpets was actually destroying the world. Since then (1994) InterfaceFlor has consequently taken steps to integrate sustainability in all areas of the production, sale and procurement process. Sustainability is not just about the environment, after all a company needs profit to survive and to do well. Ray Anderson may have been mocked when he started but InterfaceFlor has saved $ 405 million and won many awards since they got on the sustainability journey. Along the way they also discovered the necessity to develop skills and attitude within their people to integrate sustainability in business. Anyone with a sustainability idea at InterfaceFlor has to make a business case which ultimately serves sustainability and profit. They developed a ‘random floor tile’ which creates 35% less waste and transportation than wall to wall carpeting. After picking lots of low hanging fruit, taking several measures, and achieving success in sustainability from innovative projects, I am very curious to hear from Lindsey Purnell what the next steps of this frontrunner are while he climbs the steeper part to the top of ‘Mount Sustainability’as it is called at InterfaceFlor.
There are many interpretations of sustainability. What do you consider sustainability and what is a ‘sustainable organisation’ to you?
Lindsey likes the Brundlant definition the best. “When it comes to a ‘sustainable organisation’, the definition of the 3 P’s seems more useful especially to get people to make balanced decisions on people, planet and profit. The issue of people is less problematic depending on where you are in the world. The usual conflict is between planet and profit. Profit remains crucial in the sense that a company needs to have longevity to complete its purpose. There is a continuous tension especially for a publicly listed company like we are. In the mid 90’s until 2005, we had to be more even more competitive than others. At the time Ray Anderson was castigated on Wall Street as this tree hugging nutcase wasting value for the business. Only now he is hailed as a visionary. Our global CEO (name) is interviewed every quarter by investors on the web, and they still never ask about sustainability, it’s just about sales, cash flow, profit etc.”
Sustainability as you say requires all P’s in the organisation. You have already achieved a lot when it comes to Planet and Profit, what about People.
“We are also developing our global people strategy around sustainability but what does that mean? We found out we need to adapt this to regional differences. We discovered we need to train everyone in sustainability but in different ways.”
How far are you from Mission Zero? Taking into account that sustainability is a moving target, how far are you from becoming a sustainable organisation and what are the next steps for InterfaceFlor?
“We based out Mission Zero on reducing our carbon footprint to zero. We saved over $405 million since we took the entire life cycle of carpeting into account. But it’s pretty difficult to base your people strategy on carbon footprint. So we are indeed on a journey to a sustainable organisation, which is a moving target. Our Zero Mission is not the end of the journey either. In terms of oil being pumped out of the ground creating CO² and in terms of our profitability the journey doesn’t end in 2020. Mission Zero is about minimizing our negative impact but we also want to increase our positive impact. How can we restore the environment for example by taking ‘bad’ products back from others and turn them into something good? We cannot do it all by ourselves so we choose to do good by influence, hoping to get our suppliers and other market players to go in the right direction too. This why Ray and I take on opportunities like this to speak to people like you.”