In an industry currently obsessed with sustainability, efforts and approaches can vary significantly. While some organisations pay lip-service and use green references liberally across their marketing materials, others take sustainability extremely seriously – delving into scientific levels of detail in their quest to become climate positive. ‘Scientific’ aptly describes global commercial flooring provider, Interface – and its Sustainability Manager for the ANZ region, Aidan Mullan, a chemical engineer, and environmental advocate.
Interface has been focused on sustainability for more than 25 years and, having achieved its goal of Mission Zero® (no negative environmental impact) ahead of schedule in 2019 , is now focused on the next step – Climate Take BackTM (becoming climate positive). Climate Take BackTM is Interface’s mission to run its business in a way that reverses global warming. It’s an ambitious goal, but it knows how to get there: By getting to a point where it is producing as little greenhouse gas emissions – or carbon – as possible, and then by developing processes and products that take carbon from the atmosphere and lock it in, and by amplifying nature’s ability to cool the planet. To meet its goals, Interface has had to develop a stringent material selection process and introduce innovative recycled and bio-based materials into its supply chain.
How do you prioritise sustainability attributes? “Many companies approach material selection from a certification perspective or get engrossed on a single aspect”, explains Mullan. “At Interface, we apply three lenses: Green Chemistry, Embodied Carbon, and Circular Economy. You won’t make an impact on climate change with one, single marginal gain here and there – you have to look at the whole picture”.
Green chemistry is often the most popular aspect of sustainability for organisations to tackle because it’s the lowest common denominator. “Green chemistry is where all materials of concern are removed or reduced to concentrations safe for human health and the environment”, Mullan explains. “In our industry, this is a fundamental requirement, heavily monitored by government bodies; especially with health and wellness within building design becoming an increasingly important factor.”
Embodied carbon plays a major role in the selection process because carbon has the biggest impact on global warming, Mullan explains. “The built environment contributes about 40% of the world’s emissions, 11% of which come from building materials and the construction site as opposed to building operations. So when we look at materials, we select those that will sequester carbon that has been released into the atmosphere, effectively putting the genie back in the bottle”.
Mullan explains further that the journey towards net zero emissions requires organisations to look at the full lifecycle as an end-to-end process. “Once you have locked carbon into a material, how do you ensure it stays in the loop rather than making its way back into the environment? Closing that loop is the challenge.”
“Circular economy has lots of definitions. For us, it’s about retaining value and ownership of the product throughout its life. Some consider the circular economy as someone else’s waste becoming another’s raw material; but what happens to our material at the end of life? If we can’t find someone else to take it, reuse it or recycle it, it becomes waste”. It is this sustainability conundrum that Interface – and many others in the industry – have been trying to answer in recent years. However, unlike its competitors, Interface has found a viable solution.
The company has developed a process that allows it to take back old carpet from customers and convert it into new yarn and backing. The process is called ReEntryTM , and it is one of the key elements of Interface’s sustainability road map.
Reversing the Supply Chain
The hardest part of ReEntryTM is getting products back from customers – called ‘reversing the supply chain’. Interface’s solution is called EverGreen Lease. “By leasing, instead of selling the carpet, we have the double benefit of making the take-back process easier. We incentivise clients with a cost spread over the product’s lifetime rather than an initial one-off outlay, which is often harder for facilities managers to budget for”.
Interface continues to take sustainability above and beyond ‘business as usual’ practices as it focuses on becoming a carbon negative company by 2040. “We’re playing a long game”, Mullan explains. “We’ve got 25 years’ of innovations and experience under our belts. We have also learned from our successes and our mistakes. We are focused on the future with plans to release the first carbon negative products in 2021. These products have sequestered carbon during the manufacturing process and that carbon will remain locked in when we recycle the carpet at the end of life. That carbon will remain locked in when we recycle our products at its end of life - which will play another role in our ReEntry™ process”, Mullan reveals.
View more from Interface here.