With the recent IPCC report highlighting the need for urgency in taking drastic climate action, Interface is re-examining their plan and ramping up their activities. We sit down with Aidan Mullan to talk about what’s in the pipeline, why it needs to happen now, and why carbon offsetting is not a silver bullet.

You are Sustainability Manager for Interface ANZ. Has sustainability always been part of your career trajectory?

I've been a Sustainability Manager with Interface for 13 years. And in fact, that's the first time I've assumed the role of a Sustainability Manager. I've never considered myself having a career - for me, it's been a life, a life of learning and hopefully, a life well lived!

Graduating from university in Chemical Engineering my first job was Technical Services Manager in an oil refinery - so, far away from sustainability. Later I moved into the phytomedicine industry which is basically extracting active medicinal compounds from naturally occurring raw materials. So, perhaps a step towards the greener aspects of my journey. When I joined Interface, I was starting to understand how sustainability could be associated with manufacturing and, in this case, making carpet. Since then, it has been a real learning curve. I can't say that I've always spent my life thinking about sustainability and how things should be or could be better. I suppose that as you grow older, and become more experienced, you start to see what is right, what is wrong and your responsibility in addressing what needs to be done. Sustainability Manager is the perfect role for me now.

It's not just you, the world in general has grown a new appreciation of the importance of these things! Have you felt that in your work?

Yes, I think so. I think also, they can see that there's a good business case for it as well. From that perspective, resilience is probably a better term for sustainability. And any business that's resilient is going to last, and if a business is going to last, they really need to pay attention to what's happening around them, particularly with the real threat of climate change and the negative impacts on our communities and economy. I think it's very timely that sustainability management is coming to the fore now. It is part of decision-making processes within the business.

The recent IPCC “synthesis” report has clearly stated the urgency to address climate change and that the choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years. Will this change the way businesses approach sustainability?

Absolutely. If you look at the stakeholders within the built environment – the architects, designers, specifiers, builders and the product manufacturers – there's a big drive to push down emissions. The Green Building Council of Australia is leading and in collaboration with NABERS has developed an upfront emissions calculator, while NABERS is releasing a pilot scheme for rating upfront emissions for buildings this year and launching the full rating tool next year.

We are starting to see real momentum in addressing not just the operational emissions of a building but its whole life cycle. The IPCC sixth assessment report has given urgency to this by stating that lofty 2050 net zero targets mean nothing anymore. Really the urgency with which the IPCC have reported climate changing means we have to look at near term 2030 and 2035 targets. And I firmly believe that within the built environment, there's a lot more focus on that note, a lot more attention being given to it. People are rising to the occasion and seeing climate action as a design challenge.

How are companies like Interface addressing the call to action?

We recently presented at the GBCA’s TRANSFORM event and talked about our experience and learning from our Mission Zero initiative, which started back in 1994. Since then, we've had substantial success in reducing our environmental impacts. We have had a 79% reduction in the carbon footprint of our products. All our manufacturing facilities run on renewable energy, and we're also looking at converting to renewable gas at our factory in Sydney next year. However, when we consider it took us twenty-nine years to achieve these results, we see that the improvements and reductions have been mostly incremental. We have been working on this for a long time. We need to ramp up action to make more substantial headway if we are to meet our 2030 Science Based Targets.

Where these 2030-2035 targets are concerned, we really need magnitude change. We're really focused on taking drastic action on the remaining emissions associated with our products. It is a wakeup call from the IPCC, and it applies to everyone. We just started a long time ago, so we're probably far ahead of a lot of companies within the built environment. Nevertheless, we know the same as everyone else, we actually have to address the remaining emissions and impacts from our business activities.

We hear a lot about the use of carbon offsets to achieve net zero goals. In many cases companies offsetting their emissions are accused of greenwashing. Can you comment on the use of carbon offsets in your climate action plan?

Well, first and foremost, I should declare that all our products are carbon neutral. And I should declare that last year we became a carbon neutral enterprise. We achieved this by mitigating the remaining emissions by purchasing carbon credits. I'm also very aware of the ambiguity around some of the offsetting projects that are available on the market. Indeed, Professor Andrew McIntosh, recently stated at the TRANSFORM event that almost 70% of the carbon offsets available on the market currently are ‘low-integrity, high-risk projects’. In other words, they're not that good - they're not doing what they say on the label. And you have to be very careful when you're selecting an offset.

Now when it comes to Interface, the approach that we've taken – and this is the approach that any company should take – is to first benchmark your emissions, then you redesign the products and processes using innovative technologies to drive down environmental impacts. You take any actions possible or feasible to drive those emissions down. And once you've got to the stage where you hit really hard to reduce emissions, that's when you use offsets. So, benchmarking, measuring, reducing - and then offset what you can’t do yourself, until such time as you have the technology, or you're able to change your business processes to reduce your emissions further. Carbon offsetting can be a good driver for positive climate impact and community benefit if used properly.

What part does the circular economy play in achieving your emissions reductions?

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is key because first and foremost, it identifies where the major impacts are. When we look at our Scope One, Scope Two, Scope Three emissions, we find that 97% of our global warming impacts are within Scope Three. It's with our suppliers, it's in our supply chain, and we can achieve big reductions by working with our suppliers to reduce their emissions. LCA has been really good in allowing us to see areas where we can change quickly. Yarn is probably one of the highest impact materials that we use in our carpet products. And working with our suppliers, they have developed processes where they can regenerate the old yarn into new yarn, resulting in substantial decreases in the carbon footprint of our product. This was a major contributor to reducing our product carbon footprint by 34% in the period 2017 to 2021.

Circular economy basically works hand in glove to achieve net zero.

You say that achieving a true circular economy requires radical collaboration and collective action. Can you offer examples of how this can work?

The way we tend to operate is that if you're a supplier for Interface, you're more than likely aligned with our missions and our goals. Aquafil, one of our suppliers, became a major supplier because they have developed the processes to take back old yarn, even fishing nets, and convert them into new yarn. That gave them a lead in the market. That’s where the collaborative mindset and taking collective action really comes into it, and I think over the years that the conversation around sustainability is happening upfront, as opposed to just talking cost, delivery and service. For us, we will collaborate with companies that share our goal. We will work with them to achieve alignment. That's really been the modus operandi for our brand over the last 25 to 30 years.

What advice would you give to companies that want to reduce their climate impacts but may be over-awed by the challenge and need to know where to start? Are there learnings with respect to the pitfalls and successes that you can share?

I do a lot of presentations to architectural practices in smaller companies and different industries, sharing our sustainability experience and learnings. That is a question that comes up all the time: how can a small company do this?

I think the first thing to do is to have the conversation – ‘are we serious about this?’ Do we really want to do something about climate change even though it might come at a cost? This has to come from the MD or CEO. And if that’s a yes, then go for it. And then the question will be, well, what sort of targets should we set, what is within our potential to achieve? Don’t set low targets, but set some audacious goals, put a timeline on it, and engage every single person within the organisation. Collaboration really helps. If you’re the CEO, being part of an industry representative body is also good as it can provide access to shared resources and help work towards achieving a goal for the industry. So, I think, really, figure out if you’re serious about taking action, take action, and collaborate where possible with other companies, even if that means competitors within your own industry.