Mission Zéro : what if being right before others could move mountains ?

In 1994, while nobody believed in circular economy, Interface, an american manufacturer of carpet tiles, set itself the challenge to reduce its environmental impact to zero before 2020. ‘Mission Zero” was launched…25 years later, the objective is almost achieved. Geanne Van Arkel, Interface’s Head of Sustainable Development, look back to the amazing journey of a sustainable economy pioneer.

Mission Zero began in the nineties, when sustainability wasn’t a commonly discussed subject. Where did the idea come from?

Our Mission Zero journey (which challenges the company to eliminate any negative impact it has on the environment by 2020) began after our founder, Ray Anderson, read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce. This book changed his vision and the direction of our business forever. Ray realized we were too dependent on fossil fuel and raw materials and this wasn’t conducive to supporting the climate. He realized that we needed to create our own model. The term circular economy didn’t exist then but that was his ambition: he wanted to run a business that mirrors nature. So Ray approached Paul Hawken (the author of the book) to help. Paul Hawken introduced Ray and our business to many sustainability experts that helped us shaping our vision and building our strategy. We formulated our goal to become a restorative company supported by the promise to eliminate all our negative impact on the environment by 2020.

Being at the forefront of environmental impact, has it been a advantage or a disadvantage ?

It is never easy to be the first to make a change but our achievements have engineered a better way for all and proven that you don’t have to operate a profitable business at the expense of the planet. Over 20 years ago when we asked our supply chain for help, some partners were skeptical, other didn’t know how to help us and we even had to say goodbye to some. But the ones that we continued to work with are successful businesses today. For example, our long standing yarn supplier is now the leading player in recycled yarns in the world.

Interface by nature is an innovative company. And it is easier today thanks to the increased global interest in sustainability and the development of technology to enable change. Now more companies want to tackle climate change and are working on low carbon, circular and restorative solutions. We are not alone on our journey anymore.

Would you say that the key to Mission Zero’ success has been co-innovation ?

We achieved our goal thanks to great partnerships. We have learnt that you should not operate in isolation. Working together leads to more ideas, creativity and therefore better solutions for all.

Our work with the Net-Works initiative is a great example. All partners, in the Net-Works programme (yarn supplier Aquafil, London Zoological Society) to take waste fishing nets from the oceans and turn them into yarn for our carpet tiles, we are all building on each others’ expertise. Net-Works turns waste into opportunity. Who would have expected that fishing nets would be a useful resource and that we, as a modular flooring manufacturer, would work together with fishermen in the Philippines and Cameroon? Nobody. But it is exactly these kind of collaborations which are helping to change our industry and our support our planet.

The other key to the success of our journey is learning from and mirroring nature. The answer is in front of us. After all nature has more than 3,8 billion years of experience in cooperation and development.

One example is made in the fixing of our product to the floor. Alongside a biologist we realized that gluing our products to the floor was not smart and that we can have the same effect by connecting carpet tiles together instead of connecting each one to the floor.  Inspired by the feet of a Gekko, we created our unique connection method TacTiles to link the corners of carpet tiles together. This glue-free installation system is not only better for the indoor air climate, but also doesn’t damage the subfloor and the carpet tile, which enables reuse and recycling. Better for the planet, better for the people.

Your first goal was to have no negative environmental impact in 2020. How is the mission progressing? Did this goal sometimes seem impossible to reach ? What were the main difficulties you had to face ?

Mission Zero’s goal was a tough to tackle at times but we knew that setting a big goal would ensure impactful business change. After the first ten years we opened up our journey to a wider group as we were finding the climb up mount sustainability tough.  The breakthroughs came from open innovation, from asking our people and those outside our value chain to collaborate.

Through this open process we developed leading technology in our production-line that reduced waste by 80% by using a technology that had been developed by NASA to cut airplane wings.

Each year we publish our EcoMetrics to demonstrate our progress toward Mission Zero®. The most recent EcoMetrics reveal Interface has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions intensity from energy use at manufacturing facilities by an estimated 96% since 1996,  58% of the total raw materials in the products sold were recycled or bio-based, including Interface’s luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and in 2017, Interface’s ReEntryTM program diverted 13 million pounds of post-consumer carpet from landfills, bringing the total to 360 million pounds.

A couple of years ago you committed to go beyond Mission Zero with “Climate Take Back” where the goal is to reverse global warming. What does mean?

Thanks to our hard work and effort, we have reduced the CO2 footprint of our factories with 96%. We have also cut our water use by 93%. Globally, we are using 88% renewable energies in production and our European facility in Netherlands is running on 100% renewable energy including using biogas made from fish waste.

All our products throughout the full-life-cycle are standard carbon neutral through our Carbon Neutral Flooring programme.

A few years ago, we re-convened the leaders we had consulted over 20 years ago including Paul Hawken as we wanted to step up to the challenge. The message that came across to us all was the desire to reverse global warming. Climate change is the biggest challenge we are facing as humanity. But we realise this is a huge goal. However, thank to our leaders and works from Paul Hawken’s and his Project Drawdown, (global collaboration with scientists to bring together solutions that already exist today to reverse global warming), it seemed obvious that this would be our next summit, once we achieve Mission Zero. Climate Take Back is our mission to reverse climate change and create a climate fit for life.

Climate Take Back’s purpose is huge. Do you think that great ambitions are the mandatory for innovation and effective results in the environmental impact field or that small steps are a better strategy ?

Of course, you can reach your goals thanks to small innovation steps. Of course, it is impossible to jump from the bottom of the mountain to the top in one go. But if you say that you are going to reduce your energy consumption with 10% and you are able to reach it, there is less chance that you will go beyond. If you set a more ambitious goal and you reach only 80% of it, you will be more successful because you are going beyond what seems possible. Aiming higher inspires, sparks creativity and will lead to the regenerative solutions our planet needs.

We believe we need to function like nature to realize the future we want. An inclusive biobased and circular low carbon economy which contributes to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals and builds a climate fit for life.

This article was written by our partner Sparknews.