What work do you do?
I am founder and chair of Interface, Inc.
How does it relate to the environment?
I used to think that my job didn’t have anything to do with the environment. Then I realized that my job, as well as everyone else’s job, impacts the environment in some way. And now advocating for sustainability has become my No. 1 responsibility.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Simply put, I tell my story. But in order to do that, I travel all over the world, making speeches to groups both large and small. Sometimes I’m invited to have boardroom-style discussions with executives of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world that are interested in hearing about my own epiphanal experience and the positive results my company has realized as a result of our “new” mission.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I founded Interface in 1973, bringing the technology to make modular carpet — carpet tiles — from the U.K. to the American market. I took this entrepreneurial leap after graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology as an industrial engineer and working for many years for other textile manufacturers. That experience — investing not only my economic future but also my reputation in something never before done here — is in many ways similar to the experience of reinventing Interface as a sustainable enterprise. Skeptics abounded, but I was fortunate to be surrounded by committed people who shared my vision. Today, Interface is the largest manufacturer of modular carpet in the world.
Similarly, in 1994 when I made that first speech internally at Interface, and we launched what eventually became known as our journey up Mt. Sustainability, the skeptics emerged from Wall Street. But from Day One, sustainability has saved us money, not cost us. And it has earned us a tremendous amount of good will from our customers, something that cannot be measured or duplicated. And now, 10 years later, even the analysts are finally “getting it.”
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
That’s the interesting part — in the beginning I was very much “preaching to the choir”; today I could just as easily be meeting with the CEO and management team of one of the world’s largest corporations or business students at an Ivy League university.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I’m most frustrated by those who just don’t “get it.” Those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence regarding global warming; those who think that we can continue on the same path we’ve been traveling since the first industrial revolution. I’m equally perturbed by “green wash,” the practice of using the environment or any other social issue purely for economic or personal gain.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in West Point, Ga., and now live in Atlanta, with a mountain home my wife and I recently built “off the grid” in Highland, N.C.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
My epiphanal moment came about as the result of a book, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. It landed on my desk at a propitious time; I was preparing to make a speech to an internal task force about my environmental vision for Interface. As the date for the speech loomed closer, I began to become more uncomfortable with what I might say. Comply? Obey the law? It didn’t seem to be the right answer. Fortunately, Paul Hawken provided more than the impetus, he provided the framework for that initial speech, and in subsequent months and years, has continued to advise our company. He along with Amory Lovins, David Suzuki, Janine Benyus, and other experts were our educators and mentors in the early days.
What’s on your desk right now?
I’m famous for my stacks and piles … my desk is a series of them. It’s a system that works for me, though it does confound the people I work with.
Who is your environmental hero?
Paul Hawken — he started me down this road, and David Brower, who I didn’t know long enough before he died. David Suzuki is the world’s greatest scientist, in my opinion.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. Bush, for obvious reasons.
What’s your environmental vice?
I fly everywhere — I don’t even know how many thousands of miles it is per year. But we plant trees to offset the airline miles traveled by all Interface associates. I look at what I’m doing — traveling and speaking — as an investment in the future.
How do you get around?
I drive a Toyota Prius.
What are you reading these days?
Trying to read several things — Dennis Meadows’ latest book, the re-release of The Limits of Growth, is at the top of the list.
Are you a news junkie?
Lately, the election has me glued to the television. But generally no.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t think there is a stereotype that most fits me, but I enjoy being described as a “radical industrialist.”
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Costa Rica and the rainforest. I think the world is divided into two sets of people — those who have been to Monteverde and those who haven’t. My off-the-grid home in Lost Valley, N.C., is a close second.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Tax shifts — tax a barrel of oil, tax pollution, and reduce income taxes. To some that seems radical, but think about the absurdity of our current tax system and it begins to make sense.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
The environmental community is accumulating the wisdom amazingly well — we know everything we need to know — but what we aren’t doing particularly well is communicating it to everyone in a way that inspires action. The Bible calls that keeping your light under a bushel — it’s a song I learned in Sunday School growing up that has a lot of relevance to me.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
We take for granted our ability to just go get in an automobile and go somewhere. Personal transportation is so pervasive, as Americans we don’t think about the cumulative damage we do. We also do some mundane things that cumulatively have a huge effect — leaving your computer or television on, for example. Even the power that television uses when it’s off is huge — and something we never think about. There is so much that we take for granted.
What’s your favorite movie?
Being There with Peter Sellers. I loved it when he walked on water at the end.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
I’m answering these questions from the board meeting of the Suzuki Foundation in Canada, so right now, I’m happy at this very moment that Canada is still sane, while we’ve gone too far to the right. Canada is still firmly entrenched just left of center; it’s a safe haven for someone like me.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Read a book. Paul Hawken’s book did it for me. Visit the reading room on our website for ideas.
Too, every businessperson should survey their customers to see if they care about the environment. They might be amazed at the opportunity they are missing.
Are your carpet squares available in small quantities for the do-it-yourselfer for home use? — Ken Decker, Santee, Calif.
Yes, visit InterfaceFlor.com.
Who would you say is your biggest market for your green carpet and why? — Name Not Provided
Interior designers. They started us down this road by asking what we were doing for the environment; and they prefer to deal with responsible companies.
Have you ever considered using hemp as a material for a line of your carpet? In what ways do you see the future turning to this greenest of greens? — James Hardwick, Nashville, Tenn.
We have experimented with hemp in carpets and fabrics, and it is a very good fiber for both; however, supply is very limited because of laws against hemp growing.
One of the biggest things that companies do is look at their bottom line. In what ways could the cash-flow sheet be changed in order to introduce the variables of the environment and the ecosystem? Would this policy need to be changed at a governmental level, or is it just a matter of time for business to adjust to a new marker? — Marc Chapman, Minneapolis, Minn.
We are learning at Interface that the “triple bottom line” (economic, social, and environmental) can come together in one bottom line (economic) as a better way to make a bigger profit. That is the essence of doing well by doing good, and will set an example other businesses will want to emulate. If business does not “get it,” our descendants will inherit a hellish place. On the other hand, if business does “get it,” our species can enjoy earth’s bounty into the indefinite future, with a lot of help from the educational community (it needs to change, too), the faith-based community (it needs to change, too, and become part of the solution), and from government (which definitely needs to change, or be changed). All of these add up to the people, and one changed mind at a time.
You talk very inspiringly about “doing well by doing good,” and the story of Interface is a wonderful example of the economic viability of working toward sustainability. I’m wondering, though, if you believe that there are steps toward sustainability that will not be economically advantageous, and if so, how do you think we as a society might take such steps? If there are real trade-offs between economic success and environmental sustainability, how do you think decisions should be made about which road to take? — Kevin O’Brien, Atlanta, Ga.
At Interface we are trying to avoid trade-offs by looking for that “third place” that is a synergistic synthesis. Internalizing the externalities is the way to reconcile the apparent economic contradictions. We often ask, “What would we do if oil were $200 a barrel?” Then we do it. If oil were $200 a barrel through enlightened taxation, that would change the world as we know it.
How would you respond to critics who might say that Interface has a bunch of plans and lovely stories about sustainability, but hasn’t accomplished anything substantial yet? For example, one might say that burning your carpets for waste energy does not constitute recycling. Yet, that is, as I understand it, one of the things Interface does. Is that progress? Is that truthful advertising? — Rebecca Thorman, Madison, Wis.
Do I hear a cynic’s skepticism speaking? Good for you; that’s OK! Check out our Interface Sustainability website for 10 years of progress. Is a 46 percent (absolute) reduction in greenhouse gases substantive? 60,000,000 pounds of used carpet diverted from landfills? 27 percent reduction in water usage? 31 percent reduction in energy, through efficiencies? 65 percent reduction in manufacturing scrap to landfills? 12 percent of current energy from renewables? Products inspired by “biomimicry”? You be the judge. We have tried very hard through the years to avoid “greenwash,” i.e., letting words get ahead of deeds. If you find us violating this, let me know; but please don’t just assume it.
Are environmental groups right to be anti-corporate in their orientation, or do you think it’s a knee-jerk attitude better left by the wayside? And, related to that, how can environmentalists best engage polluting corporations to change their ways? — Dominic Da Silva, Oakland, Calif.
Corporations ought to be condemned when they do wrong and praised when they do right. The entire spectrum of environmental activism has its various roles in this. Corporations respond to the market; the people are the market. The power is with the people.
You talk to numerous companies, CEOs, and boards. To your knowledge, are many of them following your advice? — Tommi Makila, Des Moines, Iowa
Environmental stewardship is ascendant in business, though glacially it sometimes seems. The early movers are winning, e.g., Toyota. The fast followers will follow. Some laggards may never follow; the regulatory system is for them.
Your contribution to the film The Corporation was inspiring and articulated a new direction and new hope for environmentally conscious business. I fear, though, that it was mainly “the choir” that saw the film. What messages do you think resonate most with ordinary citizens regarding the critical state of the environment? The facts are there, but it seems that most people have blinders on. How do we reach out to people, crush apathy, and move people to action? — Michelle Mohney, Flossmoor, Ill.
This, of course, is the big question. Most likely, a huge catastrophe will be required to galvanize the public to demand change in corporations and governments, and also (not to be overlooked) in religious and educational institutions.
How do you keep positive, focused, and motivated? — Scott Elsom, Brisbane, Australia
Read Mid-Course Correction, page 172, and meet “Tomorrow’s Child,” my chief motivator. I also have five grandchildren.
Considering the outcome of this election, how do you propose to get American politics to address the real issues of long-term sustainability and global warming? — Ronald Castle, Decherd, Tenn.
My only power over business and politics is the power of influence through example. I am focused on making Interface, Inc., my company, the premier example of “doing well by doing good.” The object is to be the first, but not the last, to find the better way.
What change in U.S. government policy affecting business do you recommend as most ecologically beneficial? — Al Denman, Yellow Springs, Ohio
Create tax shifts that reduce taxes on good things (income, capital) and increase taxes on bad things (waste, pollution, greenhouse gases) in a revenue-neutral way. That would internalize many of the externalities, and begin to get the prices right on, for example, a barrel of oil.
How do you see the impact of Peak Oil on your business? Specifically, as we move to a lower-energy society, how do you implement a strategy for profitability when the economy stops growing and begins (gradual?) recession to a lower-energy energy base? — John Richardson, Atlanta, Ga.
Yes, I do see it impacting us very significantly. We are a petro-intensive company (energy and materials). When oil’s price finally reflects its true cost, either from scarcity or from enlightened taxation, that is the day we are preparing for at Interface, by focusing on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and closed-loop recycling. We expect to gain market share at the expense of less efficient, slow-to-adapt competitors, even in a no-growth world, should we come to that.
I have read several books about environmental issues and economics, and I believe one prominently featured Interface as a sustainable company that has undertaken a complete paradigm shift. It gave me a great deal of respect for your company. Can you remind me which book I am thinking of? — Charles Rettiger, Gainesville, Ga.
I recently read your book [Mid-Course Correction] and found it interesting, but not entirely helpful. I think your world is probably not representative of most people. How many of us have been educated at a world-class university, are surrounded by some of the world’s smartest businesspeople, and have several thousand willing ears (employees) to communicate our message to? Not too many. How does the average person with a passion and desire for the business world to embrace environmental sustainability communicate their message without coming across like a Jehovah’s Witness looking for another convert? — Chris Allison, Brisbane, Australia
I agree. Find other good examples and hold them up. Above all, be an example yourself and brighten the corner where you are. Refer people to good books. Everything we need to know has been researched and written down.
Our current economic system does not properly value our natural capital in a way that will ensure adequate ecosystem goods and services for generations to come. Given the stance of the current administration, what steps do you think need to be taken to begin this process of reevaluation? — David Zaks, Madison, Wis.
Elect a different government. The power is with the people. Mobilize it and use it.
The word sustainability has evolved to encompass several broad underlying concepts. How do you define sustainability, and how is that reflected in your worldview and day-to-day actions? — David Zaks, Madison, Wis.
For us at Interface, sustainability means “zero footprint,” i.e., operating our petro-intensive company in a way that takes nothing from the earth that is not rapidly renewable and does no harm to the biosphere, while treating all stakeholders with genuine respect. I believe this is totally consistent with the Brundtland Commission’s definition. However, we are aiming beyond sustainable for restorative, to put back more than we take and to do good to the earth, not just no harm, through the power of example.
Is there a bank you’d recommend — one that considers the impact on our environment when making investment decisions? — Richard Pate, Port Angeles, Wash.
Shore Bank, Seattle, Wash. … already there. Nations Bank … getting there.
I live in a turn-of-the-last-century house and would like to replace my old carpet with area rugs from Interface. Is there any chance that you will be able to do designs that have the “feel” of early-20th-century carpets? — Rebecca Phillips, Marietta, Ohio
If you don’t find what you are looking for at InterfaceFlor.com, we probably don’t make it.
What is the best reform that you have made at Interface that has resulted in ecological gain? — Marc Chapman, Minneapolis, Minn.
To say, “We are going to do this,” and then to stay on message year after year. My book, Mid-Course Correction, lays out our plan for all to see.
Would you advocate the purchasing of products that are “green” or more environmentally friendly than those currently being used by your company even if they might cost a little more than the non-environmentally friendly products? — Leslie Harty, Monroe, N.C.
I think environmental friendliness, like aesthetics, brings value to the value equation by adding a dimension to “quality.” Value = quality/price. All of us make our own value judgments.
I own a non-traditional advertising/design agency that has serviced many of the world’s biggest corporations. I am now working to channel my talents for the forces of good, partly as a result of seeing you in The Corporation. I am in the midst of trying to define and refine my mission and would be interested to hear your thoughts. My goal is to not only work exclusively with socially responsible and progressive companies and make them sexy to the mainstream, but also, on a larger scale, to figure out new ways for all brands to market themselves using means and media that are environmentally and socially responsible. How can we as an industry reduce waste, galvanize support for progressive brands, and make a positive contribution to culture rather than a negative one? What should my criteria be for selecting the companies I work with? Must a company be absolutely socially responsible in every department to fit the bill, or does every little bit help, as long as it’s genuine? — Chad Rea, Los Angeles, Calif.
Good for you! Your first challenge is to thoroughly inform yourself about the facts of environmental deterioration. The reading list in the appendix of Mid-Course Correction is a good starting place, augmented with Natural Capitalism (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins), Eco-Economy (L. Brown), and the updated Limits to Growth (Meadows, et al).
Be sure you understand the term “greenwash,” and avoid it like the plague. Work only with clients who can demonstrate third-party-verified, real progress in reducing their environmental impacts, and demonstrate their CEO’s commitment to striving toward sustainability. Genuine commitment is the single most important criterion. Social responsibility is many-faceted. A company that picks just one or two facets to ballyhoo is not committed, especially if those are the easy ones. Paul Hawken is working with the Marion Foundation and Baldwin Brothers of Marion, Mass., to compile the list of most committed companies as a guide for socially responsible investors.