Interview with Ramon Arratia, Interface
Ramon Arratia is a Sustainability Director at carpet and floor covering giant InterfaceFLOR, reknowned as true sustainability front-runners. Ramon is a regular speaker on sustainability issues and author of the book Full Product Transparency. In this exclusive no-holds-barred interview, Arratia lays down the law on industrial sustainability in no uncertain terms.
How did you personally get involved in the sustainability agenda?
I wasn’t passionate about sustainability at first. I was a quality manager at Ericsson, when I was offered a job as sustainability manager and I took it. I soon realised that we had to deal with the biggest impacts first, rather than just say ‘oh, we have to do something’ and putting efforts into pet issues or issues that are not strategic. I’m not a hippie or a tree hugger who wants to ‘oh, save the world’, I’m more of a cynical person who wants to focus on the things that will make the biggest difference.
I moved from Ericsson to Vodafone in the UK and from there to InterfaceFLOR five years ago.
What are the main challenges you face?
We’ve come a long way in terms of managing our factories, but our factories only represent 10% of the whole impact of carpet. Most of the impact of carpet is in the raw material. So our main challenge is finding alternative raw materials or recycled raw materials that are cheaper than our current raw materials. That’s a huge challenge.
We have achieved this in a couple of instances, but in others we still have to pay a premium price. Our recycled fishing net yarn is such a premium product – we accept it because we think reputation or margin-wise we recover that cost.
It depends on the customer – the average carpet fitter isn’t going to pay a premium, but if you sell it to, say, PwC in London where their biggest cost by far is employees, they’re willing to pay a premium for having nice offices with a nice story behind its fittings to keep those employees happy.
How do you go about employee engagement?
Employee engagement is important, but we don’t do it for the sake of it. It seems that some companies do green engagement just because everybody else does, but this is useless unless you have an aim.
Mission Zero is the anchor to engage employees at Interface. We tell them our employees about Mission Zero and what they have to do, but we only engage intensively with employees who carry influence on sustainability. Engagement for the sake of it doesn’t have any value.
So we identify the people with biggest influence on Mission Zero and try to enable them to use that influence in a positive way. We segment them, so, as our engineers get turned on by a technical challenge, we frame the whole sustainability question as a technical challenge. “Can you give me a product which has zero CO2?” or “Can you give me this raw material in a recycled form?” We give them budget, time and exposure to get on with it.
For sales people, we give them the arguments to help them sell sustainability to customers and respond to customer questions – in other words we give them something of value. It is key to segment and it is key to focus on the right people.
I’m really against the lowest common denominator type of engagement which focuses on getting people to turn off the lights – anybody can turn off a light, so most people just aren’t interested. We really focus on what matters with the people who have most influence.
Once you do the LCA and realise that most of the impact is in the product, not the company, it is easy to identify who is most influential. In our case it’s people who are in product development and supply chain management. It’s the same with any manufacturer.
How do you manage impacts in your supply chain?
We do a proper life cycle assessment for every single product we put in the market. We publish the results as an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) so anybody can see it.
This is core information for management – you need to know what is in your product. Much of the information is publicly available, the rest we request from our key suppliers. Some suppliers co-operate better than others with this, others see it as a matter of competitive advantage, or they’re worried their impacts are above average. We’re doing more and more business with suppliers that can provide us with the data.
When we talk about greening our supply chain, we’re not just talking about the existing supply chain but searching for alternative suppliers. This is risky because you’re losing suppliers you know, but it’s a big opportunity to embrace new emerging suppliers.
The current system is not designed for circularity – both in terms of logistics and the fact that, in many countries, it is still very cheap to throw things away – how do you compete with that? We need to reduce the costs of the recycling system, but it would help if, say, there was a ban on throwing carpet into landfill.
We offer a carpet removal service for clients so we can recover carpet easily for recycling. We trialled a full carpet product-service system, but, in retrospect, I don’t think it works for a product which has no residual value at the end of its life and which is just a component of a building. Instead we now sell the carpet and provide the maintenance services as an extra.
I think we need to look at the bigger picture. If you start selling holes instead of drills, who benefits? B&Q or Black & Decker? It will be B&Q cannibalising Black & Decker’s business and you have to be very aware of that. We have to think more widely about who can cannibalise who, and which services can be replaced by a product. But the idea that manufacturers will offer up their products for these models is wrong – it works only for some exceptions.
Do you have any top tips for others?
Do the LCA of the product and focus on the biggest impacts. You’ll usually find a couple of materials are responsible for 80% of your impact. Try to get transparency on these and try to get different suppliers to compete on these important matters – incentivise and penalise them as appropriate.
Rather than ticking boxes and checking certificates and all that crap, if you stop doing business with a high impact supplier and start using low impact suppliers, things will start to change very quickly.
The product is the lifeblood of companies – focus on the product.