• Image about Interface

"IF IT EXISTS, it must be possible," asserts Amory Lovins, cofounder, chairman, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank. He is talking about my company, Interface. Thirteen years ago, when I first described my aspirations for Interface, I daresay that my fellow industrialists thought my objectives would be impossible to realize. In fact, the CEO of a major competitor looked me in the eye 10 years ago and said, "Ray, you are a dreamer." Yet, as Amory says, "If it exists, …"

And what was then considered impossible does exist today - it is a petroleum-intensive (for both energy and raw material) carpet manufacturer that has reduced its net greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent in absolute tons and its water usage by 80 percent (using its 1994 usage as a baseline), even as company sales have grown by half and earnings before interest and taxes have grown by 95 percent.

I FOUNDED INTERFACE in 1973 to produce carpet tiles, or modular carpet, for the emerging office of the future. Today it is a billion-dollar global company with operations on four continents and sales in 110 countries. But it was in 1994 that Interface set out on a new mission: to be the first industrial company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions - people, process, product, profit, and place. With respect to place, Interface's definition of sustainability is "to operate our petro-intensive company so as to take nothing from the earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable, and to do no harm to the biosphere."

In addition to the conventional accounting measures that reflect financial ­performance, Interface monitors other, unconventional measures of progress of the environmental initiatives. For example, in just over a decade, 42 percent of its smoke stacks and 58 percent of its effluent pipes have been abandoned, obviated by changes in processing; 103 million pounds of used products have been collected to be recycled into new carpet; and 20 percent of the company's raw materials are now derived from renewable sources or from recycled or bio-based materials (the goal is for 100 percent of raw materials to come from environmentally friendly sources by 2020). In addition, there's been a 45 percent reduction in the amount of energy Interface obtains from fossil fuels, and seven of its factories are currently operating solely on electricity from renewable sources (solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energies). To date, 16 percent of the company's total energy usage is derived from renewable sources (the goal is for 100 percent of its energy to come from such sources by 2020), and a cumulative savings of $336 million has been achieved by eliminating waste in a quest for waste-free perfection by 2020. At Interface, waste is defined as "any cost that does not add value for our customers," which translates into "ambitiously doing everything right the first time, every time." By this definition, even energy that comes from fossil fuels is counted as waste and is to be eliminated.

Lest you wonder if any of this makes business sense, consider that the result of the waste-elimination initiative alone, an avoided $336 million in costs over 12 years, has more than offset all the expenses that have been incurred in pursuing Interface's objective, which we now call Mission Zero for its goal of making zero environmental impact by the year 2020. This has allowed the business case for sustainability to develop and become crystal clear.