Business Essentials: 'Walk on our carpets if you want a lighter environmental footprint'

Carpet maker Interface aims to be 100% green by 2020. But how can it convert sustainability into sales?
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The Independent Online

The American carpet manufacturer Interface has a corporate vision to be fully sustainable by 2020. "Everything we take from the environment, we want to put back in," says Lindsey Parnell, the chief executive of Interface Europe, the company's UK-based arm.

Because carpet making is a petrochemical-based industry, Interface has a challenge on its hands. But the firm, which is the world's biggest manufacturer of modular flooring and carpet tiles, has several programmes in place and is well on the way to achieving its goal. Its dilemma lies in getting its markets to appreciate its environmental standpoint so that they choose to buy Interface's products.

The company was founded by a man named Ray Anderson in Georgia, Atlanta, in 1973. "Ray grew the business first in America and then internationally," explains Mr Parnell. "Twenty years later, by which time it had become a billion dollar business, a group of employees asked him to give a speech on the company's environment policy, and Ray realised he didn't have one. It forced him to start doing some background reading so he could at least say something. He was a voracious reader, and he described the impact of what he read as being like 'a spear in the chest.'"

The decision was immediately taken to change company policy, and by 1995 Interface was measuring its environmental impact across every factory it owned. "That enabled us to know exactly how much water, energy and everything else we were using, and we still have this benchmark by which to measure our progress," says Mr Parnell.

By 2000, Interface - whose European head office is in West Yorkshire - had made enormous progress in terms of reducing water consumption, waste and CO 2 emissions. "So Ray decided to up the game and set the goal of having a zero environmental footprint by 2020," Mr Parnell said.

The programmes the company has in place to meet this challenge involve eliminating waste, reducing harmful emissions, maximising the use of renewable energy, recycling and developing energy-efficient methods of transport. Interface also wants to create sustainable models for businesses by pioneering innovative commercial opportunities - evolving entirely new products using new materials or designs that minimise the use of synthetic materials.

It's no mean feat, admits Mr Parnell. "But the next step will be persuading the market generally, and customers, that this is not just a nice idea but that they should choose us because of what we're doing."

People intuitively realise sustainability is a good thing, he says. "But while most people will have walked on our carpet tiles, we're not a household name because we're a business-to-business brand. That makes our aim more difficult."

Another obstacle is the highly competitive nature of the industry. Mr Parnell believes that the success of Interface is, at least in part, due to its emphasis on sustainability. "We've saved a lot of money, and it also gives our employees a boost. The quest we're on gives them a sense of higher purpose in their working lives. The challenge remains to convince everyone else."

www.interfaceeurope.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Steve Howard, Chief Executive, The Climate Group

"There is no quick fix to Mr Parnell's challenge, but as hurricanes intensify and temperatures soar, sustainability will become vital, and those businesses taking the lead will benefit.

"HSBC, BSkyB and BT, among others, have already slashed their greenhouse gases. In Australia, BP launched Global Choice carbon-neutral petrol, which boosted business-to-business sales. While petrol is more directly linked to the problem of climate change than carpets, Interface's carbon-neutral Cool Carpet likewise adds value to its environmental credentials.

"The answer to Mr Parnell's dilemma lies in educating customers. As climate change bites, we will realise that tragic consequences can only be avoided through cleaner electricity, energy-efficient transport and appliances and, yes, carbon-neutral carpet."

Garry Felgate, Director of Delivery and External Relations, The Carbon Trust

"We would recommend that Interface promotes initiatives that allow staff to play an active role in helping to meet the company's sustainability targets. Our research has shown that the majority of employees throughout the UK are keen to improve their environmental track record at work, especially with regards to energy efficiency. Starting a campaign to promote good carbon habits at work is a simple way in which Interface can deliver a key part of its sustainability objective.

"To make a virtue of its position externally, Interface could consider publishing a sustainability report, which could be sent both to current and prospective customers as well as being posted on the company website. Such a report, updated each year, will show customers how much progress Interface is making towards its goals in an honest and transparent way."

Paul Gostick, International Chairman, The Chartered Institute of Marketing

"Sustainability is rising up the marketing agenda. A survey conducted this month by the Chartered Institute of Marketing found that well over half of marketers believe an organisation's sustainability practices already affect customers' buying decisions.

"However, when it comes to highlighting this stance in its marketing, Interface will need to be cautious. Marketing history is littered with examples of companies which have made claims about their environmental or ethical policies, only to be shot down in flames. A 'holier than thou' attitude invites criticism and should be avoided. Acting morally is sensible business practice. But today's consumer is wary of organisations that are too quick to blow their own ethical or environmental trumpets."

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