One of our intentions with this blog is to highlight companies that are disruptively innovating many aspects of their business not just for the cause of beating out competitors or increasing profits, but rather, having arrived at some moment of collective reflection, they strive and make hard choices to better live up to ideals and a Purpose that matters to more than just shareholders and market pundits. Such “points of light,” (as we are calling these hopeful and self-motivated examples), point to a new dawn in commerce where companies are beginning to brighten the future horizon of society and do smarter business that integrates a more holistic understanding of the costs of production, the needs and desires of customers, and the potential of business to lead and make a difference.
Interface was first to market with an innovative idea when it was founded back in 1973, and today is a massive global manufacturing company most known for producing that same innovation - carpet tiles. In the early days, the company grew rapidly, and was the model of financial success and high yield growth. Mergers, acquisitions and a public stock offering by 1983. By usual standards, all was going well. Yet in 1994, founder and CEO Ray Anderson initiated a radical journey toward sustainability. Spurred on by their visionary leader, Interface embarked on what came to be called “Mission Zero” to be carbon-neutral by 2020. Yes, you read that correctly – a vast global manufacturing business making a product that is petroleum and resource intensive working toward a new vision of industry that considers natural limits, thoughtful production, and self-regulates for sustainability and resource consumption.
To many inside and outside the company, it must have seemed like corporate suicide to make such an ambitious goal and be serious about achieving it. The risk to market share as well as the high costs and tough choices associated with making the changes the goal would demand must have seemed like a dead weight destined to sink the company. Yet instead of a ball-and-chain, Mission Zero became an animating part of Interface’s organizational fabric, led to innovation in the product line and created greater efficiency in sourcing and production which conserves waste and energy, meanwhile cutting costs. For example, Interface runs a carpet tile recycling program which diverts old product from landfills for reuse in its production cycles.
Achieving Anderson’s vision of Mission Zero (and beyond) requires imagination, sacrifice, courage, and probably seemed insurmountable to many of the thousands of employees who would together make it happen. As they describe it, “Ray challenged our then 21 year - old company to adopt a bold vision, one that required new thinking and a new model for business. We didn’t have a map, but Ray’s vision was a compass for our journey. As we progressed on our journey, a passion for sustainability took hold with our people and our company was transformed.”
Pursuing Mission Zero created an Interface today that is a healthier, more balanced company which offers a better product and distinguishes itself from its competitors not just for those reasons, but also because it is thoughtful, trusted and respected since it is motivated by a compelling Purpose, and though it is not perfect, usually lives up to that vision. As an addendum to the story, far from corporate suicide, Interface's market share and profits continued to rise (today they are a billion dollar company), though this sort of financial return was certainly not the ultimate goal.
Interface's point of light was set aglow when back in 1994, Ray Anderson happened to read and was radically moved by Paul Hawken's book called The Ecology of Commerce. We commend to you both the story of Interface, and Hawken’s book, though you should be aware of the following disclaimer: do so at your own risk, for they might start you on a journey for which there is no map, "only a vision to act as the compass."
Here's Ray Anderson giving a TED talk, which shares more of the story.