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the Planet, One Carpet Tile at a Time
What led to your decision to build a green company?
Our midcourse correction happened about 12 years ago. We began to get a recurring question that we had never heard before: “What’s your company doing for the environment?” This was a question we really had no answers for.
People in our company became very uncomfortable with that. We consider ourselves a customer-intimate company. We formed a task force and called together our people from around the world and asked, "What can we do?"
The managers all said, “We want you to launch this task force with your environmental vision.” But I didn’t have one. They wanted me to make a speech, but I didn’t want to make that speech. I dragged my feet. Then I relented, and then I started sweating. I didn’t have anything more than “we obey the law.” The appointed hour was coming and suddenly this book lands on my desk – The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. I picked it up and began to thumb through it idly. I came to a chapter, “The Death of Birth.” This term was coined by Edward Wilson, the Harvard biologist, to refer to species dying out without ever experiencing the miracle of birth again.
Within ten pages I felt a spear in the chest. It was an epiphanal experience. Hawken makes the point that the species of earth are in steep decline and the biggest problem is the institution of business. There’s only one institution that can turn things around, and that’s the one that’s doing the biggest damage — business and industry. As the founder, chairman and the CEO of my company (at that time), I “got it,” right in the chest. This, combined with the initial impetus coming from my customers, was very important to the transformation of Interface.
I made that speech. I used Hawken’s book, and we were all weeping by the time it was over. It was transformative. We had to figure out how to become a restorative company, how to do it, what to do. At the end of the two-day meeting we had some idea of what sustainability was. But the word “restorative” sounded like perpetual motion. How do you do that? We saw that if we could get a fix on what sustainability is and then actually do it, a certain power of influence would develop. We could set an example for others to follow and that's how we would put back more than we took and become restorative – not just what we did, but what we influenced others to do.
Out of that realization came a fairly early surfacing of our mission. I began to speak publicly about it. One invitation led to another and I went from two public speeches in 1995 to 50 in 1996 and 120 the next year. Because I was out talking about these subjects, the people who had asked about them in the first place embraced the company for what we were setting out to do. We learned quickly that this is not just the right thing to do, but that it was also good business. We began to generate good will in the marketplace.
We were taking a highly visible position and making a public commitment. We began to get results pretty quickly and could point to actual achievements. The positive feedback from the marketplace was a real boost to the cultural transformation. You can’t get there from the old mindset.
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