Architecture & Design is proud to announce Interface® as the official sponsor of the ‘Waste Elimination’ category at the 2019 Sustainability Awards. Zero waste is in the DNA of Interface and an active participant in sustainability initiatives towards the future.  

Counting down the days until the awards, we spoke to Aidan Mullan, the Interface Engineering and Sustainability Manger and discussed company initiatives, process and methods, and where the evolution of technology is headed. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your role at Interface? 

I am the Engineering and Sustainability Manager responsible for engineering, lean and sustainability programs to eliminate waste and reduce carbon emissions as part of Interface’s ambitious vision and mission – Mission Zero® since 1994, and now Climate Take Back®.

In 2003, I moved to Australia and have been at Interface for 9 years. To join a company as Sustainability Manager was definitely interesting because it elevated my awareness of our environment and the damage happening around the world. I wanted to work in a field where I would have an impact to make things right. My role at the time was two-fold; to work with the company to achieve our Mission Zero goals – eliminate any negative impact our company has on the environment by 2020. And to advocate this purpose within Interface, whilst continuously advance sustainability in our culture.

I’ve been working with the staff at Interface on a whole range of sustainability initiatives and at the same time working on the engineering aspects of the factory. As part of Climate Take Back - an evolution from Mission Zero, I’ve re-engineered major changes across the ANZ business and am very pleased with the progress we’re making.

Did the role of ‘Sustainability Manager’ exist before you arrived at Interface? How long has that been a focused role within the company?

The significance of the sustainability role solidified in 1994 when Mission Zero was established by our founder Ray Anderson. With the Mission Zero goals set, we’ve been gathering information on our environmental performance since 1996. In other words, how much we take, in terms of materials and energy, how much we make, in terms of product, and how much we waste, in terms of wastes and emissions so we can manage them correctly. To date, we’ve reduced the average cradle-to-gate carbon footprint of our carpet by 69%, the lowest in the industry. We’ve reduced our water used at our manufacturing sites by 89%, and 89% of our energy used across all our manufacturing sites is from renewable sources.

Everything is purposeful and contributes towards the goal to reduce or eliminate waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy sources.

How have you seen the culture change shift at Interface? Can you tell us more about that? 

Culture changes depend on leaders who can present a vision that influences and engages people. Back in 1994, Interface’s journey started with a very inspirational leader - our Founder and Chairman Ray Anderson. He has been a compass for our journey, by working and gathering the perspectives and ideas of environmental thinkers to gain a sound understanding of what it means to run a business sustainably. There were redesigns of processes and products and a drive to pioneer new technologies and systems that reduce or eliminate waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy sources. This naturally changed mindsets and attitudes which ignited a passion for sustainability within our people and company. Our focus on being purposeful and positive for the planet in all aspects of design and innovation of our business. And this has become a part of our corporate DNA of who we are at Interface. That shaped our culture within the organisation.

For example, we measure every bit of waste that we produce and that allows us to look at how we can reduce and eliminate this waste. We have gone from 20-25% diversion from landfill at our old factory to over 30% at our new factory in Minto through design and engineering, and will continue to increase that figure. We’re working towards achieving 90% diversion from landfill within the next 18 months. And have some ground breaking projects in the works for next year at the factory.

Today, we use a 100 per cent recycled yarn in many of our carpet tiles that’s partly made up of fishing nets collected by locals in fishing villages in the Philippines, Cameroon and Indonesia through Net-Works®. In 2012, we collaborated with the Zoological Society of London to set up an innovative business model, Net-Works, that empowers these coastal communities to turn waste fishing nets into opportunity, by selling them into a global supply chain. These nets were wreaking havoc with the marine ecosystem, causing pollution and threatening the livelihoods of fishing communities.

Net-Works has proven to be a viable model for turning waste into a valuable resource and replenishing marine environments, bringing marginalised communities into a fair global supply chain and providing access to finance through community banks, and supplying sustainable material for Interface while enabling community-led, financially sustainable conservation. 

Since 2012, Net-Works has been established in 40 communities who have collected over 224 tonnes of waste nets for recycling. 2,200 families have been given access to finance through community banks and 64,000 people have benefitted from a healthier environment. And we are now delighted to have joined NextWave, a cross-industry consortium convened by Dell and Lonely Whale to tackle the global issue of marine plastic pollution by creating the first global, scalable and operational supply chain that reduces the amount of plastic entering our oceans.

When our CEO Jay Gould joined Interface, he could see that running a business sustainably is proven profitable, but did not want to stop there. He took the efficiency of the company forward another step, from doing no harm with Mission Zero, to taking restorative action with Climate Take Back - our new mission which invites other companies to join us as we commit to running our business in a way that is restorative to the planet and creates a climate fit for life. He has really transformed our culture and attitude towards the future. Globally, we are climate optimists, and we believe that taking simple, small actions for the environment can go on to have powerful ripple effects.

In the time that you’ve been in business, how have you seen the carpet tile/ flooring industry develop with respect to sustainability?

Interface has been a leader in this industry since 1994, demonstrating that it is possible to run a profitable business sustainably.  In my 9 years with the company there have been fundamental shifts in the business models and processes, conversations led by the market as well as the culture of the organisation, all contributing to our sustainability journey. A milestone achievement to note is our ability to make carbon neutral products since 2018. Interface’s entire portfolio of products are carbon neutral, across the entire product life cycle. This begins with raw materials and continues through manufacturing, transportation, maintenance and ultimately end-of-life product takeback and recycling through ReEntry®, and other disposal methods. Our aim is to be a carbon negative company by 2040. Twenty-five years ago, we set out to eliminate any harm we may have on the environment by 2020. Today we’re almost at the summit and we are now focused on the future and being restorative through our new mission - Climate Take Back.

Interface’s website talks about your mission Climate Take Back. What does this entail? Are you able to provide more detail about your overall sustainability strategy?

We’re convinced that a fundamental change needs to happen in our global response to global warming. And we need to think beyond limiting the damage caused by climate change. We now believe “doing no harm” to the environment is not enough and start thinking about how we can run our business in a way that reverses global warming and creates a climate fit for life. We believe we can reverse global warming if we focus on four key areas:

  1. Live Zero – Do business in ways that gives back whatever is taken from the Earth. This carries our Mission Zero principles forward of taking only what can be replaced.
  2. Love Carbon – Stop seeing carbon as the enemy and start using it as a resource. Carbon is a building block of life. We are actively exploring raw materials that use waste carbon or sequester carbon to make our products.
  3. Let Nature Cool – Support our biosphere’s ability to regulate the climate. Right now we're interfering with the Earth's natural regulation systems by polluting our air with excess carbon and undermining life’s ability to regulate the climate. We need to change our business practices and allow nature to do its job: cool. 
    Our Factory as a Forest pilot project, for example, was started to operate our factories in a way that mimics the ecosystem. It questioned how nature would operate a business. Our first pilot project was in New South Wales where we took the River-Flat Eucalypt Forest on Coastal Floodplains as a reference habitat for our Minto factory. Measuring the ecosystem services the forest could provide, we challenged our employees to create ideas the factory could implement to make it perform more like the local ecosystem –such as using wetlands and roof gardens to purify water – to bridge performance gaps between the factory and the forest. Today we’re starting to implement these design principles in other manufacturing sites.
  4. Lead Industrial Re-revolution – Transform industry into a force for climate progress. What’s needed now is industry that works with nature, not against it, and creates new business models to drive positive change. 

We have realised that we cannot change the world alone and that it requires what we call radical advocacy and collaboration. Climate Take Back is Interface’s commitment to take the lead in running a business in a way that is restorative to the planet and creating a climate fit for life. 

Does this extend beyond the manufacturing stage and post-use disposal?

It is important to take a holistic approach to sustainability. There is impact made at every stage of any products’ life cycle to account for. That is from sourcing raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, maintenance and ultimately end-of-life product. As a commitment to eliminate any negative impact on the environment, we introduced ReEntry as part of our Mission Zero journey. Looking beyond the take-make-waste industrial model, we looked to providing a local, responsible solution for our products at the end of its serviceable life. ReEntry zeros out any waste from the system by disassembling the component materials of reclaimed flooring to be reused into new flooring time and again. This helps create a circular economy – designing out waste and to Living Zero. Within our Love Carbon pillar of Climate Take Back mission, we continue to innovate means to create new carpet from end of life flooring. In fact, we’ve created a prototype of our first carbon-capturing tile. Leading the way to decarbonisation and continuous carbon footprint reduction.

How do you ensure the efficacy of your sustainability initiatives?

We measure our progress so we can manage our “metabolism” of our operations. We account for how much raw material and energy we use, how much product we make, and how much we waste, in terms of material wastes and emissions. Interface collates its EcoMetrics™ measurements globally and reports these metrics annually. Our EcoMetrics data also includes materials recycled, carpet reprocessed through ReEntry and business airmiles.

How do you see your sustainability initiative evolve in the future?

Our founder Ray Anderson related the journey to a fully sustainable company would be like summiting “a mountain higher than Everest”. Mission Zero – to eliminate any negative impact has been a 25-year journey, and we’re now embarking on our bold new mission Climate Take Back – to be restorative to the planet and create a climate fit for life. It is an ambitious feat and there is much to accomplish from that. We believe this journey will always evolve.

How have you seen the technology change to adapt to the sustainability goals at Interface? 

To establish a circular economy to eliminate waste, we chose to design and install the first recycling facility in Australia at our Minto factory. Led with the purpose of being restorative and regenerative by design, our take back recycling program brought upon new opportunities to drive continual improvements in both manufacturing processes as well as providing post-consumer carbon management solutions.

Technology has come a long way with a path set on continual improvements and efficiencies. In the early days of circular economy, the challenge was in the collection and separation of materials in post consumer carpet. Through innovation and engineering of our Cool BlueTM backing system, we were able to feel compatible materials through to create a 98% recycled or bio-based content backing that is as high in quality and performance. That was one of the bigger, more significant changes in technology.

When you look at renewable energy, the other contributors are solar energy which is becoming more affordable, and the presence of green gas emissions didn’t exist 30 years ago. We use a lot of biofuels that are non-toxic and non-harmful, in comparison to some of the fuels that were used maybe 30 or 40 years ago. We’ve taken great strides to achieve this and technology has aided the way that we can manufacture sustainability today.

Are there driving factors in the market, specifically within architects and specifiers, for sustainable production? 

Essentially you have to be profitable to be sustainable. We make a profit to exist; not exist to make a profit. The technology that we have developed over the years have all looked towards working with maximum efficiencies. Our productivity has significantly increased, and we produce a lot less waste because of our Mission Zero goal. That is driven by two reasons: the most environmentally-friendly kilogram of waste is the one that you don’t produce. Likewise as a business, the cheapest kilogram of waste is the one you don’t produce too.

Waste production has been a big factor in influencing our business successes. An initiative is in the practice of bio-mimicry in our designs. We have used bio-mimicry as a tool for over 15 years changing the way we design our products, package and transport goods. Taking inspiration from nature’s genius, we developed a whole new category of carpet tiles called i2®. Taking the random beauty of the forest floor, the unique patterning and colouring of i2 carpet tiles allow for easy installation and replacement with less off-cut waste, while eliminating dye lot issues and the need for traditional glue adhesives. This changes the way we started thinking about waste and the impact of the way we design on the environment and our business market shares.

I was reading about your prototype tile that traps carbon and creates carbon negative environments. Could you tell me more about it?

Our Proof Positive prototype carpet tile is a proof of concept that shows that we can manufacture a carpet tile that is carbon negative. The bio-based materials used in manufacturing the tile, have sequestered carbon before being converted to synthetic durable materials that can be used to make new products. As a net result of using these materials and of making the tile in energy efficient factories largely powered by renewable energy, there is less carbon in the atmosphere after the tile was made than if it hadn’t been made at all. The average Interface carpet tile has a cradle-to-gate carbon footprint of 6.1 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per square metre – an industry low. But the Proof Positive prototype tile has a carbon footprint of negative 2 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per square metre. Recycling the tile through Interface’s ReEntry system keeps the carbon locked in the product within a close-looped system. Take note that the tile doesn’t actually absorb carbon from the atmosphere when it is installed. At that stage it just looks great.

What does the ‘Waste Elimination’ category entail for you at this year’s Sustainability Awards? What would you like to see in the projects for this category in the nominations and shortlisting? 

If I was a judge on the panel, the key focus would be in ‘waste elimination’ when looking at these projects. It would be interesting to see new processes and innovations in eliminating waste in the built environment. Secondly, if waste can be re-used and recycled back into these processes would always be great to see.

A project that highlights and respects the model of the circular economy and how that can influence and change the way they design and create projects is something that should be commended in terms of moving forward towards the future and our mission of achieving sustainable design on a global scale.

Are they adding meaningful value to how we are combatting the sustainability initiative? This is the question that we all need to consider.