Worldwide Research role of leadership in integrating sustainability in core business and operations of companies – part 3.

Part 3. Interview with Lindsey Parnell – CEO at Interface Flor

Is sustainability is integrated at InterfaceFlor in everything in sales, operations, supply chain management, performance management? And if so, what else has been crucial in setting those steps? 
“The operations guys design their own machines and take into account how to use less energy and create less waste, etc. The more recent development has been training sales people to be confident to carry the message to their customers. As customers become more aware of the issue, it becomes scarier for our own people to talk about it. But our sales people don’t have to know all answers as long as they give it later or put them in contact with someone who knows. Our sustainability ambassador programme came from a training programme we developed with Forum for the Future. We train at 3 levels: level 1 is everyone, level 2 is management and sales and level 3 is ambassador. Level 2 learns to speak about the issue with people in the outside world. Level 3 go through an aggressive media training by the communications director of Forum for the Future.
We also learn from trial and error. Sometimes great things happen when people get together and get the space to experiment. Not all projects are a commercial success but some like the random carpeting would never have come about if someone hadn’t read the book on biomimicry! Other projects failed however like hard carpet tiles made from polylactic acid.“

What are remaining obstacles in getting this integrated in everything you do? How do you become what you do?
“Most of us we have been doing this so long, most people don´t think or talk about it anymore, it´s become a habit. If Ray disappears or I am gone, it won´t stop. It´s too engrained in the rank and file. We do it on a week to week basis. It saves us money, why stop? New projects have to stack up with others. Of course there are dilemmas, which one to invest in first. For example we want a tuft machine, a new recycling machine and we want to improve our building. None of us have bottomless pits, so it pushes designers and engineers to think of a better way to get it done. The benefit has to be irresistible. The financial model of a recycling unit is not that great now at $74 a barrel. But two years ago it was $140 a barrel , so we have to take that  into the equation because price of oil and virgin raw materials will go up at some point. The pay back could be 5 years now, but next year it could become 2 years. Balancing the business short and long term is part of what we do.“

Often people talk about sustainable product and you have done a lot in this area, but what about companies that don’t have production facililities, what can they learn about the process to learn and adopt ‘sustainable behaviour’ among their people (management and employees)?

“We weren’t walking the talk in everything, so we had to go beyond our production facilities as well. Since 72% of our carbon footprint lies in raw materials, our biggest impact is in the factory. But then what about our show rooms? We wanted our customers to perceive that we were setting an example in everything. We started with an audit and developed policies and standards of behaviour. We addressed the lighting system, air conditioning, etc. It’s about doing the right thing and about doing the little things. In our offices we have waste bins in the hall, and not in the room anymore. It would have been easy to ignore the rest, but life cycle analysis asks us to take it all the way through the chain to our suppliers, customers. Look at Wallmart. Their biggest impact is on the supply chain. When they say they are interested, others need to do something.”

This meant purchasing from ‘sustainable suppliers’ but many were not that far yet, so how did you work with them to make your and their footprint more sustainable?
 “When we started in 1995, there weren’t many of them around. In addition most of our suppliers were much bigger than us and uninterested to work with us. So we had to gradually increase recycled materials. This really changed once our competitors started copying our model. The market then pressured suppliers, who take back post industrial waste. By winning awards and equipping our ambassadors, we perpetuate more influence on our suppliers. Today suppliers see us as leading the edge and want to stay close to us. This helps them find out what the rest of the market will start demanding. They now listen to us and take back post consumer waste. You need to do it together. But we have to punch above our weight since we are only a billion dollar business globally.”

What incentive is given to employees, your purchasing guys for example to take the high road and make the effort to look for and work with suppliers who can provide sustainable materials or solutions?
“If you work here, that is what’s expected. Incentives are almost gone. A purchasing manager who is not driving improvement financially and sustainably is not around with us for long. We don’t pay to maintain the status quo. When you are a market leader like we are and a sustainability leader, you need to stay in the lead. You need to take risks to make progress. You make mistakes but you make more successes. It’s part of our culture and is non-negotiable. Financial incentives are not enough for impact in sustainability. People who do it just for the money leave anyway. Our managers do get financial incentives for the profit and sustainability is key to our strategy, our brand and ultimately of our profit model. So they need to tie it together. If they can’t, they won’t survive here. If the guy at the top is not willing to commit to our vision, to articulate it and to pressure on his team to make progress towards that vision, it’s not going to happen anyway.”

Some companies are just starting to get on this journey and need to make costs in a time of recession. Especially long term investments are impossible when you can hardly survive the short term. What do you advise others when it comes to starting to integrate sustainability in their business now?
“Do what you can do. Our savings were mostly done by a 1000 small steps. You can do one big thing or a lots of small stuff which either way add up to make a significant change! Small stuff motivates much more than spending a million bucks anyhow. The top team has to keep talking about it! If you don’t talk about it, it’s not important to you.”

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