Interface & Mission Zero

QuestionForLiving interview with Ray Anderson July 16, 2010 regarding Interface and Mission Zero

 QuestionsForLiving:  What were your primary questions for building Interface into the company that it is today?

RA:  To answer that I need to go back to 1973. That's quite a long way back. I was working for a perfectly good company, and a perfectly good job and had this irresistible urge to do my own thing. And the first question was, “Am I nuts?"“Am I putting my family at an unacceptable risk?” I had a daughter who was 16 years old, just two years away from college. It was a high-risk proposition and a lot of people would've said “Yeah, you are nuts."

Behind the question of other obvious questions such as, “Could we survive?", and “Could we survive start up?”, this was a new idea and a new product being brought to the marketplace

Carpet tiles don't just come to the new market place. “Was our technology adequate?”“Would we be able to transfer the European technology to the United States and make it work?”, and most of all, “Would the market accept the product and the concept of this product?”.

And then there were questions like “Do we have adequate capital to do this?”“Is this enough startup capital particularly in a time of recession?”, “Did we have enough money and enough access to money to make it all work?”

So those were some of the fundamental capitalist and entrepreneurial questions, but the primary question was… “Am I nuts?”


QFL:  What questions were you asking yourself when you committed to a path of sustainability?

RA:  Curiously enough, the first question was the same question, “Am I nuts?”.

In other words, “Can we figure this out for a petro-chemically intensive company?” Others have done it, and started on this path in the food industry, but had anyone set out on this path in the petrochemical product - making industry which we were? So there were plenty of questions surrounding that. And perhaps most important of all was “Would the market accept what we were doing?”“Could we in fact be successful pioneers?” And, by the way, “How do you measure your progress with something like this that has never been done before, in this setting?” and that led us to create a very complicated and complex system of eco-metrics; that to my knowledge nobody else in the world uses even to this day. This has been entirely superseded by lifecycle assessment which is a generally more accepted approach and yet, to this day, we’re still maintaining our own eco-metrics measurement to measure our progress.


QFL:  I remember in your book there was a moment when you decided to embark upon the sustainability path realizing we couldn't keep going at it in the same way that we had been, were there specific questions that you were asking yourself that led you to that moment?

RA:  The big question was, “How do you get zero footprint?” That is a how-to question and it implies a whole bunch of follow- up questions like “What do you do in the way of changing processes from virgin material to process and recycled material?”“Does that type of technology even exist; and if not, can we invent it?” and “What would it look like?” and a whole host of subsidiary questions all around the topic of business “Is this really feasible or have we just set out on a fool’s mission?”

QFL:  What questions were you and your team asking when you created Interface's environmental objective, specifically: "Achieving Mission Zero: Interface’s dedication to sustainability has evolved into the company’s Mission Zero commitment — our promise to eliminate any negative impact Interface has on the environment by 2020."?

RA:  One of the fundamental questions is, “How do you do this?”. Nobody had considered that before. Let’s sit down and make a plan. We asked, “If we’re going to make a plan, from what perspective do we make that plan?” The answer to that of course is you assume success and you ask yourself, “How did we get here?”. So you back cast from success. So you ask yourself “What changes do we have to make to get to this idealized place that is a zero footprint?" And that gives you laser-like focus on the processes that have to change, the practices which have to change; and the marketplace has to accept these changes or you will fall flat on your face.”


QFL:  What questions would you suggest that other business leaders ask themselves in order to create a business that is both economically and environmentally sustainable?

RA:  Paul Hawken asked the questions in his book, The Ecology of Commerce, which was the book that I read and changed me fundamentally from the inside out. He said these are the questions every business must ask itself: “What do we take from the Earth?”“What do we make with that material that we take from the Earth?”, and “What do we waste along the way?”. Implicit in this is “Can this go on and on and on, or are we by definition a dead-end business, because we deplete the resources upon which our existence depends?”

“What do we take?”“What do we make?”“What do we waste?” When you think about those three questions, you realize that you're asking questions about a linear process. A process that begins by taking stuff from the earth, making stuff that gets used, and then ends up in a landfill or an incinerator. This is a linear process and you know immediately that that process fundamentally has to be changed to a circular process. So that you are reclaiming those precious raw materials that have become products and have now been used up; and you are reclaiming those raw materials as used up products to give them life after life after life – a closed loop material flow; and that is one big son-of-a-bitch of a problem.


QFL:  Independent of the work environment, what questions do you believe that people should/could ask themselves to make our world a happier and healthier place?

RA:  That's a really good question. I guess you begin with the fundamental question and that is, “Am I happy now - truly happy?", and “Is this the way I want to live the rest of my life, or am I missing something really important, and what would that be?; If I could write the script, how would I write it?” And then the question is, “Okay, how do I get from here to there?”

I think part of asking the question “What actually makes me happy, or would make me happy?”, Is the question “How dependent am I on stuff?” Stuff is ephemeral and in the long run, stuff is going to run out. “If everyone lived life the way that I do, would we have a happy world?” and if it were dependent on stuff, I think the answer to that is “No way.”


Questions For Living TM
©QuestionsForLiving. All Rights Reserved.

site design + development by bartlett interactive