Carpet tile maker Interface is setting the pace in sustainability with an inventive new recycling initiative, writes Selina Denman
At Interface, the journey to sustainability is likened to climbing a mountain.
Since the mid-1990s, when its customers in the US first started asking about its environmental credentials, the global carpet tile manufacturer has been on a mission to "do well by doing good". The company, which specialises in modular carpets for the commercial, institutional and residential markets, is probably the most progressive and sustainably minded design-based business in the world. It has embarked on the so-called Mission Zero, which aims to eliminate any impact that it has on the environment by 2020, and has identified seven "fronts" to this particular mountain: eliminating waste, benign emissions, renewable energy, closing the loop, resource-efficient transportation, sensitising stakeholders and redesigning commerce.
"A mountain has many faces, many fronts. There are different ways of climbing a mountain and, until you've climbed it every way, you haven't really conquered it," says Steven Pratt, Interface's regional director for the Middle East.
Of course, any journey as ambitious as this is bound to be long and fraught with challenges. "We have come to understand that there may be more than seven fronts. During the early part of the journey, you are in the foothills. There are easy things to do - like double-sided printing, for example. The further up you go, the harder the climb. There have been a lot of missteps. We've had to change course a couple of times with a couple of things. The closer you get to the summit, the harder it is, but because you are closer you can see different things."
Nonetheless, Interface is now recognised as an example to be followed in the sustainability stakes, and has repeatedly been named as one of the top three most sustainable companies in the world in GlobeScan's annual Sustainability Leaders survey.
Total energy usage at the company's factories is down by 39 per cent per unit since 1996 and, as of 2012, seven of its nine factories are operating with 100 per cent renewable electricity. Waste and emissions have also been significantly reduced, and focus has been placed on creating a more sustainable end-of-life scenario for its carpet tiles.
"Sustainability is about products, people and the places we make things. It's also about profit - we have to stay in business. It's about the total life cycle of a product, and we are responsible for that entire process," says Pratt.
For example, when one of Interface's products reaches the end of its lifespan, the company will take it back and recycle it, in what is one of the most successful carpet recycling programmes in the business. "We don't want them to be thrown away; we want them to be collected and made into new carpets," says Pratt.
While plenty of focus is placed on how the carpets are made and where they end up, what they are made from - and how that material is sourced - is of equal importance. Early on, the company took a microscope to the suppliers that it was working with and started streamlining, with the aim of switching from regular sources to recycled sources, where possible.
And now, a new initiative is taking Interface's recycling to a whole new level. The company has teamed up with a UK-based conservation charity, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to launch Net-Works, a programme designed to tackle the growing issue of discarded fishing nets in some of the world's poorest coastal communities. The practice of ghost fishing, where nets are left or lost at sea and continue to trap and entangle fish, seabirds, marine mammals and even divers, is doing untold amounts of damage to marine habitats around the world and is a problem that can persist for centuries. With around 640,000 tonnes of fishing tackle estimated to be abandoned at sea each year, this is also having an adverse effect on the fishing communities, whose livelihoods depend on bountiful yields.
As the nylon from these fishing nets is, in the main, the same material that is used to make carpet yarn, Interface and ZSL have come up a win-win solution for all involved. Net-Works has established a community-based supply chain for discarded nets in the area around Danajon Bank, a double barrier reef in the centre of the Philippines, with 26 local fishing communities being enlisted to collect old nets from the sea, clean them and then hand them over to Net-Works, for a fair price. Aquafil, an Interface supplier that has refined the technology to recycle nylon waste into new nylon carpet fibre, then treats the nets and supplies Interface with the nylon that it needs to create new carpet tiles.
In June, Interface launched its first modular carpet collection made from recycled nylon sourced from the sea. Net Effect, which was introduced in the UAE in September, was designed by David Oakey, owner of David Oakey Designs, and consists of six modular carpet tile options. The design aims to capture the essence of the sea - a coastal colour palette consists of blues, greys and neutrals inspired as much by the depths of the ocean as by the sun-and-salt bleached driftwood and stones found on the shore. "Plus it has a very high recycled content," says Pratt. "It's one of the most sustainable products in the industry."
Interface is now looking to expand the Net-Works initiative beyond the Philippines, and is considering potential projects on the east coast of Africa, in certain parts of India and even in Oman.
"Interface's business is built around inspiration, innovation and the pursuit of true sustainability - economic, environmental and social," says Chip DeGrace, Interface's executive creative director. "Products like Net Effect and programmes like Net-Works demonstrate how creative thinking can change the way we do business and move us closer to the ultimate goal of being a restorative enterprise."
Net Effect carpets can be found at the Interface Dubai Showroom, API Business Suites Building in Al Barsha; 04 399 6934.
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