Learning from nature to create a better business

Naysayers will always naysay. They will say it’s too late to reverse course with our climate, that the problems are too vast to overcome.

But not Geanne van Arkel. And not Interface, the company with which she’s worked for 16 years and counting as the head of sustainable development in the EMEA region.

Interface employees don’t waste time on negativity about climate change. They take action toward solutions. They inspire. They bring others on board. They realize that nature already provides the way forward and people just need to follow.

Interface is a global manufacturer of modular carpet tiles. That is, small squares of carpet that seamlessly fit together in residences and commercial facilities. Among other benefits, using modular carpet allows customers to replace worn out areas without having to redo the whole floor. In 1973, when the company was founded, that concept alone was innovative.

Since then, the company has taken innovation to a new level by becoming arguably one of the most sustainable businesses in the world.

Sustainability wasn’t always the backbone of Interface, though. In the early 1990s, an architect asked what the company was doing for the environment. Founder Ray Anderson had no answer other than that they were following legislation.

Shortly thereafter, a book landed on his desk: The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. For the first time, Anderson thought about how ecology and economy could go together, and how businesses could make a positive difference in the environment. He called the book “a spear in the chest.”

“Ray was like, we have been doing everything wrong,” Van Arkel said. “We take, we make, we waste. We should learn from nature and run a business as nature does.”

With the help of sustainability experts and environmental visionaries, to whom Interface was introduced by Hawken, Anderson led Interface to develop a lofty sustainability vision and action plan. This awakening is well-documented in Anderson’s own book: Mid-Course Correction, published in 1998.

Out of this vision was born Mission Zero, the company’s pledge to eliminate its harmful impacts on the environment by 2020. This ambitious mission includes becoming carbon neutral, sending no waste to landfill, recycling and reusing materials, and using only renewable energy. To meet these goals, the company’s leaders asked themselves: “If nature designed an industrial process, what might it look like?”

In nature, nothing is waste. Everything feeds something else, allows something else to thrive. Manure is fertilizer; fallen leaves are food for earthworms which are food for birds. It’s completely unnatural to create products, throw them away, and seal them in a landfill as most modern companies do.

Understanding this, Interface redesigned its processes and products, and started taking advantage of a circular economy. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is based on three main principles: “design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.”

An example of an Interface circular economy program that also addresses social issues is Net-Works, which came about when the company was looking for a recycled alternative to nylon to make its carpet tiles. Unable to find a readily available and plentiful source of nylon 6, they worked together with their yarn supplier Aquafil and discovered that commercial fishing nets are made of this material. These nets are replaced every two years because repair is too expensive. Together with the Zoological Society of London and Aquafil, Interface has set up a system to purchase discarded nets from fishermen in the Philippines and Cameroon—countries that don’t currently have a great recycling system set up.

One significant benefit of this system is that it reduces the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean. Abandoned or lost fishing nets account for a significant portion of ocean pollution, and they don’t break down into microplastics easily—which means they keep on fishing for hundreds of years. Additionally, the program provides extra income for fishermen and their families, who also have incentive to scout for abandoned fishing nets at sea and add to their loot. Better yet, this income allows parents to save for their children’s education, Van Arkel noted.

Net-Works is just one example of how creative thinking and circular economy can have a positive ripple effect. And it enabled Interface to offer the first carpet tile made with 100% recycled nylon.

According to the latest available stats from 2017, Interface is on track to meet its Mission Zero goals on time. The company has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions at manufacturing sites by 96%, lowered its landfill waste by 91%, and reduced its energy use by 43% while increasing its renewable energy use to 88%. These numbers—just a few out of many—are impressive, to be sure, but more can be done.

“We thought zero negative impacts would be our end goal—but it’s actually the starting point,” Van Arkel said. “Now we are working to climb a second mountain. We are moving from becoming restorative, by learning from nature, to actually working toward becoming regenerative, by functioning as nature.”

The concept of emulating nature’s processes and systems to sustainably solve human challenges is known as biomimicry. Biomimicry has long been an important aspect of Interface’s operations, but it’s even more important in the new Climate Take Back mission—the follow up to Mission Zero. 

As part of Climate Take Back, Interface announced in summer 2018 that all of its products are now carbon dioxide neutral across their entire lifecycle through its Carbon Neutral Floors program. Van Arkel said that the next step is investigating how they can create human carbon sinks, meaning products that store carbon from the atmosphere.

“In nature, carbon is a building block, so why can’t we use it in a positive way?” she said. “This doesn’t mean that we can keep on emitting, but it means that maybe we can solve the problem quicker.”

Another project in the works is setting up factories to function like a forest. This is not only about designing factories to have no negative impact, but also running them so that they contribute to a better outdoor climate. Benefits can include improving air quality and establishing habitats for pollinators.

To do this, Interface is working with the organization Biomimicry 3.8 to create a methodology to benchmark itself against well-performing local ecosystems and is running pilots in the US and Australia, and soon in Europe.

The concept of factories as a forest could also apply to cities.

“By creating cities that function as a forest—for example, by installing green roofs and green facades—you actually enable a city to solve climate change issues and you will have happier citizens at the same time, because it’s scientifically proven that people feel better in a green environment because of our innate connection with nature,” Van Arkel said.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself that all of this sounds expensive or out of reach for average people or companies. But the fact is, at least in Interface’s case, sustainability finances itself.

“Nobody thought that we could be a successful company while embracing sustainability,” Van Arkel said. “But if you start with looking at where you are wasting materials and energy, and look at your process and try to redefine it, you’re actually saving money. What we did consistently is reinvest the money back into sustainable innovations.”

It’s also a matter of having the courage to make bold changes because it’s the right thing to do, even if you don’t see the business case right away, she said. “Sooner than later you actually see that from a business perspective it was smarter.”

In the early days, Interface was one of the only companies thinking sustainably, but now people’s mindsets are shifting and more people are jumping on board. Still, change needs to happen faster.

Van Arkel recommends that people visit drawdown.org to read the 100 most powerful actions people, businesses and governments can take to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These solutions come from a book edited by Paul Hawken (the same author that inspired Interface’s first sustainability vision) called Drawdown—The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, released in 2017.

As Van Arkel said, “Acting on climate change starts with ourselves and there’s so much you can do to make a positive difference.”

So let’s go.

meet the author

Hi! I’m Kayla Frost. To me, sustainability includes the perfect combination of things I’m passionate about: the amazing natural world and conserving it. I am in love with the wild and its plants and animals, so treading lightly on the earth is important to me. As you might imagine, I love hiking, camping, and all sorts of other outdoor activities. I also enjoy enjoy curling up with some tea, my dog, and a good book. My favorite place is Alaska, and I’d love to visit Nepal some day to experience the culture and do some trekking—though I’d really need to train for that high altitude.

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