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4 December 2015

The myth of bottom-up sustainability

vektor image sizif

I couldn't have picked a better antidote to this dismal autumn than to spend 24 hours with the Interface Europe sustainability ambassadors in Scherpenzeel, Netherlands. Hearing the latest on Mission Zero (and beyond) was truly inspirational. Unfortunately I can't share the really exciting stuff (yet), but I left with no doubt in my mind that Interface will continue to be the foremost sustainability exemplar for at least another 20 years.

I had a wee mission of my own at the event. Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the 'sustainability champions' model of delivery. Every network of sustainability champions I have come across has atrophied except the ambassador programme at Interface. So what do Interface do right that everybody else gets wrong? What's the secret sauce?

I spoke to about a dozen people at the event to see what I could glean.

And the answer, surprisingly, is nothing to do with the network (although Interface does nurture the network very well).

No, what Interface has, and others don't, is transformational leadership at the top of the organisation and a robust sustainability framework in place. This gives the ambassador network the space, direction and resources to thrive.

In most other organisations sustainability champions are simply recruited/press-ganged and set loose in the sustainability jungle without a map, compass or provisions. Even if they manage to stumble in the right direction for a few steps, it is no wonder they usually end up wandering around in circles, getting lost and perishing.

In other words you have to do top-down before you can do bottom-up. Then the two can meet in the middle.


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2 December 2015

Nobody does it better

Interface Gala Dinner

I'm in Scherpenzeel in the middle of the Netherlands for one particular reason: it's the base of Interface's European operations and the location for the company's Mission Zero Sustainability Ambassadors Summit. I'm doing a piece of work for Interface Europe on employee engagement, so I'm here on a watching brief to get a better understanding of how Interface gets it so right.

In particular, I am really intrigued as to how the Ambassador programme is the only green champion programme I have come across which really delivers. Most sustainability champion networks crumble into poorly-attended whinging shops, to the extent that I never recommend clients set one up and, if they already have, I usually challenge them as to why they did. The Ambassador programme is clearly different and my undercover mission is to work out why.

The summit kicked off last night with a fabulous gala dinner (above) and a couple of things really jumped out at me:

1. Leadership: Interface founder and Mission Zero instigator Ray Anderson may have been dead for 4 years, but his spirit clearly lives on. Rob Boogaard, CEO of Interface Europe, gave a really powerful speech, leaving no doubt that he sees Mission Zero and Interface's business strategy as pretty much one and the same.

2. No half measures: you don't become a Mission Zero Ambassador just because you were the only one from your office to turn up to a lunchtime meeting. No, at Interface you have to go through a multi-layer training programme and have to deliver an assignment before you achieve that status. And I mean status – it's more like earning a belt in a martial art than joining a bunch of volunteers.

3. Restless ambition: the vibe at the dinner was "well done, we're very proud of you, what are you going to do next?" Laurels were certainly not being sat on.

The word that came to mind as we boarded the bus back to our hotel was authenticity. These guys say what they mean and mean what they say. It's for real.


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11 November 2015

Leadership, Sustainability & Visibility

bowlerI'm very proud to be working on a project with the world leaders on corporate sustainability, Interface. The results of this work will be made public next year, but it is very clear from my many interactions with Interface employees and stakeholders that Ray Anderson, the founder of the company and its Mission Zero sustainability programme, is still held in highest regard some four years after his death.

I follow a couple of twitter feeds who supply inspiring business and management quotes (I like a good quote, even if many are misattributed) and one caught my eye this morning:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves ~ Lao Tzu

Now I know I'm walking on thin ice criticising the (purported) author of the Tao Te Ching, but is this always the case?

On one level I understand the need to get individuals to claim ownership of sustainability issues, solve them and take credit for the results. But 'barely know he exists'? We look to our leaders to show us the direction of travel, for permission to act and for permission to fail. Otherwise every organisation could run itself.

I certainly don't think Interface could have gone through the radical transformation it has over the last two decades without Ray Anderson nailing his colours to the mast. And where Interface has led, competitors and other industries have followed. Visible leadership matters in sustainability.


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30 April 2012

Greenest Government Ever and The Vision Thing

In my post last Friday on David Cameron's little green speech, I mentioned in passing that I thought his vision to lead "the greenest Government ever" was superficially compelling but in reality rather insubstantial. I've been mulling on this over the weekend and thought it was worth expanding on - as I explain in The Green Executive, a vision is an important element of an effective sustainability strategy.

Having a compelling vision gives you a touchstone around which you can develop your strategy, lead your troops and fall back on when difficult decisions loom. However, it is also a big stick for others to beat you with when you either fall short or, more importantly, are perceived to fall short. So when, say, the solar industry gets upset about the cut to the Feed In Tariff, the cry immediately goes up "how can you call yourselves the greenest Government ever?"

The problem for the politicians is that different people have different views on what "greenest" means. For some, steady progress over what has gone before is quite sufficient, for others whatever is achieved will never be enough. If your vision is vague, the threshold will be set by the observer - and of course the press will define the way that suits the particular article they are writing.

Flooring giant Interface got around this by having "Mission Zero" as their vision - a zero impact on the environment by 2020. This is brilliant as it is both compelling and absolute - it can be measured against. Below the overall vision are seven objectives - the 'seven faces of Mount Sustainability' as the company calls them - which allow more precise measurement. These thresholds also provide some backside cover if an unexpected issue arises.

So the ideal vision has a compelling big picture AND some precise objectives to define the bottom line - what you really mean by that big picture. Set the thresholds or others will set them for you. OK, Dave?

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9 August 2011

A Tribute To Ray Anderson

It was with great sadness that I saw the news that Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface, had died yesterday. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr Anderson, and only heard him speak once at an Interface event. But I recommend his book, Confessions of A Radical Industrialist to every other person I meet, included an interview with one of his senior European directors in The Green Executive, and included Mr Anderson as the only industrialist (so far) on Green Gurus where I concluded:

Ray Anderson is in many ways an unlikely green guru. An industrialist, a Southern Gentleman, self deprecating and almost impossibly polite, he is as far from a tree-hugging tub thumper as you could imagine. But nobody else has delivered green business improvements on this scale. He has taken the theories of gurus like Amory Lovins and Janine Benyus and demonstrated that if done correctly they do make good business sense. By transforming an archetypal ‘dirty’ industry such as floor coverings, he has demolished the excuses from other sectors that it can’t be done. And he is committed to spreading the world, reportedly delivering around 150 speeches and interviews a year. When it comes to industry, Ray Anderson is the green guru.

I don't have many heroes, but Ray Anderson was one of them. One of a kind and an inspiration. I'll end with his words:

“If we can do it, anyone can. If anyone can, everyone can.”

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4 June 2010

The Power of Positive Thinking

I love the story of how Ray Anderson and Interface turned the perceived cost of a solar energy system into a new product: Solar Made Carpet, and promptly sold enough of the new product to cover that cost many times over. It reminds me of a story that Gunter Pauli, founder of ZERI, told me about when he was CEO of Ecover. He wanted to build an "ecological factory" but the banks wouldn't lend him the money. For whatever reason, they would lend him money for a major branding/advertising exercise. So he took the money, built the factory and said "tadaa - there's our advert!". Gunter's a bit like that - a big man brimming with self confidence, enthusiasm and a contrarian nature - your bank manager's worst nightmare, but great fun over a couple of beers.

When I talk about positive thinking, it's not some new age-y "believe in it and it'll happen" fluff. What I mean is looking for solutions rather than problems. If you said to Gunter "we've got this acidic waste stream that's a problem" - he'd be straight back at you - "that's not a problem, it's an opportunity - what could you use acid for?" Diageo made a similar paradigm shift recently - instead of "treating" their wastewater at their distilleries, they're using it as a source of energy via anaerobic digestion.

The great thing about this kind of thinking is it enthuses everyone. From the layman to the biggest seen-it-all-nothing-impresses-me, there is nothing that will grab their attention like some examples of problems being turned into solutions. It really fires up workshops as people hunt for similar breakthroughs.

So next time you see a problem, whether technical, physical, societal or economic, why not take a step back and say "how can we flip this around into a solution". You may surprise yourself.

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6 April 2010

Book Review: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson

This book seemed to take an age to get published in the UK, and I had it on pre-order as soon as I knew it was coming as, in terms of green business leadership, Ray Anderson is the Guv'nor. His company, Interface, is the least likely champion of green business that you could imagine - they are the world's biggest manufacturer of carpet tiles, made from oil-based chemicals using huge amounts of energy and producing tonnes of toxic waste - if they can do it, anyone can.

Anderson first wrote a book, Mid-Course Correction, in 1998 describing his decision to turn Interface into a sustainable company back in 1994 and this book, he says, is an update of that journey from the point of view of ten years later. The title of the first book comes from Anderson's epiphany on a flight reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. He had been given the book after struggling with the question "What is Interface doing about the environment?".

The answer was the radical Mission Zero - the like of which I have seen nowhere else - to have a zero ecological footprint by 2020. Yes, zero. In order to achieve this, Interface developed the idea of "Mount Sustainability" which has seven faces - all of which have to be climbed:

1. Zero waste
2. Eliminating emissions and effluent
3. Renewable energy
4. Recycled or renewable materials
5. Making transport resource efficient
6. Sensitizing stakeholders
7. Redesigning commerce

There are too many examples of how they have progressed on these faces to list here, but here are a couple of my favourites:

• turning the perceived cost of installing solar energy in one factory - enough to cover the whole supply chain's carbon emissions - into a business opportunity. The result: a new product, Solar-Made carpet, which has won huge public sector contracts.
• developing a new carpet fixing tape, inspired by the tiny hairs that allow geckos' feet to cling to any surface, to eliminate the need for glue and make the carpet easier to recover.
• using landfill gas to heat one of their factories and cut methane emissions
• the "entropy" carpet tile, again inspired by nature - this time leaves on a forest floor, which can be laid in any direction.

Interface isn't afraid to fail either. Their much talked about "Evergreen" carpet leasing service (part of face 7) was a marketplace failure - mainly because their customer's financial systems and the US tax system couldn't cope with carpet being a revenue item rather than a capital item.

If I have to criticise anything about the book, it is that the writing itself is a bit clunky in places and threads sometimes get lost. For example, in the chapter "One small digression and six lessons" I could only count two lessons, and the biographical nature of the first few chapters suddenly disappears until the end, giving a slightly uneven tone. A very minor criticism, but a bit more polish would make the message so much more compelling.

But in summary, Interface is my No 1 green business and this book goes a long way to explaining how Anderson and his team did it - so, buy it, read it, buy a copy for your colleagues!

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23 November 2009

Interface's socially sustainable product

I had a great interview with Nigel Stansfield of Interface on Friday. I met Nigel in 2002 on Schumacher College's now sadly defunct Business & Sustainability course*, but I didn't realise at the time that he had been given two year's (nearly) complete freedom to explore and understand sustainability. Nigel's role is Senior Director of new product development - covering both incremental improvements to existing products and big step changes in product/service concepts. Note that the word sustainability doesn't feature in his job title - it is a core role of everyone at Interface.

Interface's commitment to sustainability is astonishing - they have the corporate goal of a zero footprint by 2020. They have recently started to get stuck into the social side, developing a new product made from sustainable materials in India where all the actors in the supply chain are assured a fair price - it would be a FairTrade product if FairTrade had a protocol for floor coverings - it really is that cutting edge. The video below describes it better than I ever could!

FairWorks from Just Means on Vimeo.

* I am developing plans for a similar intensive residential course for senior sustainability practitioners, but with an emphasis on sharing experience rather than being lectured by a guru - if you would be interested in such a thing, get in touch and let me know what you would like out of it.

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20 November 2009

Interface interface?

I’m back on the train again, this time to Halifax to interview Nigel Stansfield of Interface for The Green Executive. Interface is definitely one of the greenest companies on the planet – and it is the biggest producer of modular carpet in the world. The company's Chairman Ray Anderson is truly a green business pioneer and has written several books on the subject. I saw him speak a few years ago and he was inspirational. He's on my list as a future entry on Green Gurus.

It's been a busy week. I signed off the final proofs of The Three Secrets of Green Business (gulp!) and had to do four press interviews yesterday as Newcastle upon Tyne was declared to be the most sustainable city in the UK by Forum for the Future - when I've got my political hat on, I'm second in command of all things sustainable for the Council. A good day with some excellent press coverage. On top of that I'm scoping out new business opportunities for one client, developing another project around rural sustainability and working on The Green Executive. The new baby is invading my favoured 6am slot for this - normally the house is silent, but now I have to, sometimes literally, muck in with the little'un.

It's all great fun!

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12 June 2009

Ray Anderson, Interface

Interface is one of the world's leaders in green business in the rather unsexy field of carpet - they also happen to be the biggest producer of modular carpet in the world. CEO Ray Anderson is not the greatest public speaker in the world, but his message is compelling.

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