Interface Goes Beyond Business As Usual

Over the last few months, one of the topics that I have been speaking on has been the need for firms to go beyond “Business as Usual”, and last week Interface Flooring once again provided an excellent example for how firm can do just that.

Their announcement, Interface To Recycle Discarded Fishing Nets Into Carpet provides an overview of the program:

Global carpet tile manufacturer Interface, Inc. will soon begin using discarded fishing nets to make carpets, bringing both conservation and socioeconomic benefits to some of the world’s poorest coastal communities.

The company recently completed a pilot project, called Net-Works, with conservation charity the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). By establishing a community-based supply chain for discarded nets, Net-Works aims to improve the livelihood of local fishers, while providing Interface with an innovative source of recycled materials for its carpet tiles.

Discarded nets on the beaches or in the sea have a detrimental effect on the environment and marine life as they can persist for centuries. But most nylon from these fishing nets is the same material used to make carpet yarn.

In reading this article, there are several pieces of this program that I would like to highlight as innovative.

1) It creates an economy for waste that is a proven detriment to our environment. Beyond polluting water, stray nets are known to kill and maim marine life for years
2) It engages local communities into an economy that is build on improving/ restoring their environment
3) It, once again, reduces Interface’s need to procure virgin materials in the form of petroleum based products to produce its carpet

These three elements alone make it a program that show Interface is still willing to look beyond business as usual, and for that I hope you will take the time to learn more about Ray Anderson, Interface Flooring, and the process that he undertook to take Interface flooring up Mount Sustainability.

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2 Responses to Interface Goes Beyond Business As Usual

  1. I agree that Interface is a great story in sustainability, and thanks for giving them prominence. They seem to me to have shifted the narrative for carpet manufacture as an industry. That is quite impressive.

    As you highlight, the especially brilliant bit in this particular initiative is the creation of a local economy for communities to restore their environment. The recycling angles are obviously great, but key to this initiative being self-sustaining is for it to engage and empower locals.

  2. Richard,
    Yes, Interface is truly an icon and model for all to emulate.

    I worked with Ray Anderson way back when Paul Hawken, Don Aitken, Gil Friend and I first brought The Natural Step to the US from Norway.  Even then, Ray was our inspiration that it just might take hold in the US.  He and others like him (Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, for instance) represent the only way, in my mind, that we will ever see any real corporate responsibility and movement towards the fading vision of any sustainable business enterprise.

    Let me quote from an article I wrote many years ago (see “Message, Means and Motivation,” that I have attached.)

    “SUCCESS STORIES

    Lovins also didn’t miss the chance to mention real success stories of conversion to “Natural Capitalism,” such as Interface Carpet in Georgia.   We all use them because it is really nice to have real examples.   However, it is a bit disingenuous to represent them as triumphs of a new economic logic.

    I have personally met and talked with Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet as well as  Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and know that the amazing things they have done with their companies began with an act of will on their part to do the right thing— not as a financial calculation.  In fact, they both told me they weren’t even sure that it wouldn’t cost them.

    The fact that the Natural Capitalist are right, in these examples– that 
    these companies saved money over the long run and received competitive advantage for doing the right thing is nice.  It is good to see people  rewarded for doing the right thing– and these examples add to the empirical database of  best practice.   But we need to acknowledge that these and most other true movements toward Natural Capitalism were taken because of a fundamental value shift–  an ideological shift away from the status quo, — not because of any new bottom-line calculation.”

    The Universal Curmudgeon                           No.  1.4
      by Don Kyhote

    Message, Means, Motivation

    It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve seen Amory Lovins interact with a Stanford audience and I was struck by the contrasts, both in reception and delivery. 

    Amory was as brilliant as ever.  I have been in awe of him for almost 30 years.  He truly is an “out-of-box” genius, of the Leonardo DaVinci, Buckminster Fuller mold.

    In his last presentation here, during Earth week activities, he received a very different reception from an overflow crowd and he chose to re-educate what was primarily the choir in a very different way.   I am thinking there is probably a connection.

    LOVINS —  UPSTART PHYSICIST

    The first time I heard Amory Lovins on campus, it was during the heady times of the Jimmy Carter administration where there was for the first time a real effort to include energy efficiency and conservation as part of a National Energy Policy.   Amory Lovins was the standard bearer for creative design solutions to our energy needs (You may remember his,  Soft Energy Paths, Cambridge, Ballinger, 1977)  

    Sometime in the early 80’s, his audience was an energy forum sponsored by several Engineering Departments.   Except for a few student environmental activists, you could say that it was a hostile crowd.   The Professors had required their graduate students to attend and be ready to challenge his “obviously uninformed positions.”   Much prestige was the prize for anyone who could trip up this young upstart Lovins.  

    It didn’t quite work out.  Lovins’ presentation was a characteristically brilliant technical analysis on our energy needs and how to meet them.   Afterwards, the inquisitors, one by one, lined up behind the waiting public microphone.   An on-going series of slings and arrows were sent his way and returned, like one Aikdo thrust after another, back to the red-faced sender.   It was embarrassing, to say the least.   The Professors, the few who were still present, felt that they had to do something so they tried their hand at it.   

    So that they and the institution they represent can retained some semblance of dignity, I ‘ll stop here.   Suffice it to say the ‘heretic’ was unscathed.  Amory Lovins represented a paradigm shift, with a preponderance of the evidence, and the old guard found it very uncomfortable.   I saw first-hand, for the first time,  what Thomas Kuhn called the beginning of a “scientific revolution.”

    What he was saying, so many years ago, was technically irrefutable then, as it is now.   Yet the dominant view, the one that finances all the education and research programs, controls virtually all public information on the subject and thus the political power still, dominates because it is not reason, scientific understanding, common sense that matters.  What matters is where the money is,  who controls the money, and what the money wants !

    LOVINS –“ECONOMIST”

    Twenty years later, it is obvious that Lovins has figured out that he must re-package his message in greenbacks.   While he continues to do the incredible work that he has always done (see rmi.org), he clearly knows that the best way to ‘sell’ soft paths is to show that there is money to made doing the right thing.  

    That was the difference in his presentation this time around.  He, as most of my other longtime environmental activists friends have opted to do, has decided to communicate in the dominate language–the language of financial gain.  The physical logic– the truth as it can best be determined by science is no longer the gauge–it is what can make more money.  

    Remember please that Lovins is an Oxford and Harvard trained physicist– his real power comes from his ability to see reality in the physical world.  Yes, he is also a gifted communicator and can frame his knowing in the superficial vernacular of the profit-minded, but that isn’t the power of his argument.  The fact that more people listen now only goes to show that the wrong things matter more than the right ones.

    It is no accident that he gets more press now as “an economist” (all of the next day reports in the press defined him as such) than he did as an environmentally-concerned physicist.   To me this should be a source of grave concern, not one of pride, for choosing the ‘right’ packaging.

    How did this happen ?   How is it that to almost everybody what makes more economic sense is more valid that what makes scientific (I would say ecological) sense ?  How is it that we have come to the point that an essentially fictious economic worldview has more validity than an ecological one  ?   One of the ways is that well-meaning, even brilliant,  spokesmen for truth cave-in to using the language of the opponent to convince them.  As far as I am concerned, as soon as we accept their criteria for communicating value,  we have lost the battle  !!

    We have been pulled into the wrong argument.

    A NEW CORPORATE BANNER

    This time around to an overflow audience his re-packaged argument was very compelling because we do not have to question the primacy of economic value, we can have our cake and eat it too— it is all one. 

    In this respect, Amory has joined Paul Hawken’s parade.  ( “The Ecology of Commerce,”  The Natural Step Organization and now “Natural Capitalism”- see natcap.org).  Marching to the drum beat, “we can have it all, dum de dum, we can have it all, dum de dum.”  Economics and Environment joined for the higher good under the banner of “Natural Capitalism.”  It is just the latest in a series of attempts to reconcile two world views that are inherently irreconcilable.

    To Hawken, and now it seems to Lovins, corporate control is a given.  It’s the way things are, so we must live with it.    I disagree !   While their power and control,  may be legitimate, they are not authentic.   There is no reason for it but that we gave the power to them and still permit it.  We can thank decades of collective lunacy for that.  It all began with those clueless souls who first thought of giving personhood status to a corporate entity — what on earth were they thinking ?  This has been followed by a series of actions removing ‘these right-bearing entities’ from virtually any responsibility for what they do.  These large powerful interests have diligently worked for decades to limit or totally remove liability for the impact of their profit making activities.

    And now that’s “the given” that we must live with.   I don’t think so !  We aren’t going to live with this given, it is going to kill us.   We need to wake up and soon.

    IT’S SO OBVIOUS

    If there is a down side to Lovins’ brilliance it is that his common sense clarity, his eloquent simplicity, his impeccable natural logic is so patently self-evident that we can’t imagine why we aren’t already doing everything he talks about. 

    The first question after his most recent presentation poignantly expresses this impression when the questioner asked, ” This is all so logical and obvious , what do we need to do, it seems that it will happen automatically ?”

    The answer, to a large extent, as to why we aren’t doing the logical things he has been talking about for 30 years, is because the proper motivation isn’t there.  The prevailing ideology of free-market fundamentalism ( UC #1) keeps us running after the money and not looking for real answers.

    FALLEN FRUIT

    In his recent presentation, it was interesting to hear Lovins discuss “picking up the fallen fruit” — the simple things that can be done, cost nothing and result in significant savings.  

    Examples included residential passive solar heating & cooling in the Village Homes community in Davis, CA or the simple retrofit of large commercial office space in downtown Chicago.  While both examples saved or would have saved money in initial construction, accrued major energy savings and maintenance costs, they were NOT adopted (or undone ) because in one case the owner didn’t think they could sell their award-winning house without installing air-conditioning, and, in the other, the commercial leasor couldn’t wait for the work to be done.  

    This fallen fruit isn’t being picked because the desire to do it isn’t there. 

    LET THE DOG WAG US

    Many years ago, I can remember being involved in strategic discussions with a  group of activists.   One of the participants, proposed the tactic that has become the major approach of the movement for the past 15-20 years.   “The economy is mindless,” he said, ” it’s like a dumb hungry dog,  show it a bone and it will follow it.”  “All we have to do is to show how there is money to be made by conserving this or that and the market will be drooling after us.”   I didn’t like the idea from the start and have come to think that this approach is a real deterrent to searching for and finding lasting solutions.

    It is calling on the wrong motivation.   I believe that motivation does matter– why you do something matters as much or perhaps even more than what you do.  But now all anybody cares about is motivating people to do this or that because there is money in it.

    A dog chasing a bone can easily be diverted by a juicier morsel at any point along the way.  Maybe hunger is the highest motivation for a dog, although I bet I can divert most with a bitch in heat.

    It seems, however, like the most base instinct imaginable to rely on in “higher” human beings.   Our society deserves to be in the hands of something better than mad hungry (or sex-driven) dogs.

    SUCCESS STORIES

    Lovins also didn’t miss the chance to mention real success stories of conversion to “Natural Capitalism,” such as Interface Carpet in Georgia.  
    We all use them because it is really nice to have real examples.   However, it is a bit disingenuous to represent them as triumphs of a new economic logic.

    I have personally met and talked with Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet as well as  Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and know that the amazing things they have done with their companies began with an act of will on their part to do the right thing— not as a financial calculation.  In fact, they both told me they weren’t even sure that it wouldn’t cost them.

    The fact that the Natural Capitalist are right, in these examples– that 
    these companies saved money over the long run and received competitive advantage for doing the right thing is nice.  It is good to see people 
    rewarded for doing the right thing– and these examples add to the empirical database of  best practice.   But we need to acknowledge that these and most other true movements toward Natural Capitalism were taken because of a fundamental value shift–  an ideological shift away from the status quo, — not because of any new bottom-line calculation.

    FINE-TUNING VS. RE-TOOLING

    The new Natural Capitalists are quick to point out that it will “take a few changes” to fix the current system.   Some minor little changes like properly valuing “human capital” (people, intelligence, culture) and “natural capital” 
    ( resources, living systems and ecosystem services).  A few minor changes, indeed !!

    You can sugar-coat it anyway you want, but under capitalism (old time capitalism, where capital means—money and financing ) money dominates over the interests of labor, land and resources.

    This is the rub, converting from short-term to long-term accounting and including natural capital and human resources, which are now almost completely avoided, aren’t minor alternations of the economic machine.

    While Lovins’ message is seductively clear and simple it requires a major ideological shift– MAJOR changes in our dysfunctional economic model and it is politically naive and socially irresponsible to think otherwise.   

    This is what these reconcilers fail to appreciate.    There are irreconcilable ideological differences between the system we have and the system they want. 
    This isn’t merely a matter of minor fine-tuning.  It requires a major re-tooling.  The engine needs to be fundamentally changed and the engine’s owner isn’t on board for the changes.

    This isn’t about house-training a naughty pup,  it’s about finally putting a most destructive craven mongrel out to pasture.

    Whole new economic engines need to be created that produce agreed upon ENDS with the most efficient means at the lowest cost, using as little natural capital as possible.  If these changes were to be made it would hardly be capitalism any longer and you can be sure not acceptable to corporate capitalism as we know it.

    Do you think for a minute that Cheney, Bush and the other “oil slicks” from Texas who represent today’s corporate consciousness are moved by concerns for human and environmental resources?  (If you do you have been asleep for the last 100 days, if not for the last 100 years).  It is much more profitable to collude, with-hold supply, raises prices and blame those who have been concerned for the corporate created “energy crisis.”

    Conflict of Interest Disclosure
    I hereby disclose that I profit daily from the blessings of a living Earth.  I take stock in the life-supporting systems of Nature that sustain us.  I am heavily vested in the preservation of this Natural Capital.  I  have a strong self-interest in the common good and believe that rights come with responsibilities.  I support those who speak truth to power.  I am loyal to those who authentically lead the way to equity, justice, personal integrity, human dignity and compassion.  I realize that this represents a significant conflict of interest with the free-market fundamentalism and technological determinism that dominates thought and action today.
    These vested interests of mine do not permit my silent compliant acceptance of unfounded beliefs in the market and man and the mindless destruction in pursuit of profit and privilege.

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