Nature is supremely efficient.
If you, as a business person, started off with that proposition at the core of your business plan, where would it take you?
For starters, you might decide to be nature’s partner instead of its adversary. You might engage in explicit collaboration instead of implicit exploitation. Working in cooperation with nature, you might discover that huge, money-saving efficiencies could be realized.
This is exactly what has happened at Interface, Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpets, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Ga.
Three years ago, Interface began « reimagining and redesigning everything we do.’’ It was, the company states in its first sustainability report, « a momentous shift in how we see the world (and) how we operate within it.’’ It was a decision to enter « the next industrial revolution.’’
The financial consequences were dramatic. According to its financial statements, revenues rose from $800 million (U.S.) in 1995 to more than $1 billion in 1996; cost savings through waste reduction amounted to $25 million (U.S.) with a total saving of $75 million projected by the end of 1998; and share prices increased from $6 (U.S.) a share in 1995 to around $40 at present.
The star among its 26 manufacturing plants operating around the world, was the plant in Ontario at Belleville. A year ago, the Belleville plant won the company’s environmental leadership award.
The list of innovations at Belleville is far too long to list here. But it includes eliminating all discharges of water. The plant used to use 450,000 litres of water a month in a cooling tower and in a process for printing designs on carpets. It replaced the tower with a second hand chiller that it picked up for $14,000. And it switched to weaving designs instead of printing them. Now it uses water only for sprinkling lawns and servicing washrooms, and has saved $8,000 a month in water and sewage charges.
In addition, the plant has eliminated all heavy metals in its manufacturing processes, cut waste going to landfills from 177 tonnes to 43 tonnes, reduced the amount of raw materials it uses by 6 per cent, lowered temperatures in its manufacturing process by 58° Celsius for a huge saving in energy consumption, reduced off-gassing from carpets to 6 per cent of what it had been, chopped air emissions by 38 per cent, dropped its total power consumption by 35 per cent, and found a way to recycle 100 per cent of the backing from old carpets.
Because of efficiencies and low-cost production at the Belleville plant, Interface has transferred some of its export manufacturing from the United States to Belleville. As a result, 60 per cent of production from the Belleville plant is now exported as compared to 15 per cent a year ago, and operating revenues have almost tripled.
The next big step for the entire corporation is to discover how to recycle the face fibre from used carpet. The stumbling block has been in removing contamination from the used fibre before recycling.
Research is under way at the company’s head office in Atlanta. But the Belleville plant has commissioned its own, independent research. And Rahumathulla Marikkar, the plant’s technical manager, has set the end of this year as a target for developing a successful process.
With Atlanta and Belleville both working on the problem, he’s sure Interface will soon be able to turn fibre from old carpets into new fibre.
Since the fibre is nylon, a petroleum derivative, recycling will be a giant step toward ending reliance on non-renewable oil resources. And a giant step toward still more, huge, cost savings — recycled nylon yarn sells for about $4 a kilogram compared to $11 to $15.50 a kilogram for new yarn.
« We’re doing well by doing good.’’ That’s how Claude Ouimet puts it. He’s executive vice president for Interface in Belleville. In other words, the company is doing well because it is doing good — because it has allied itself with nature — and that is, indeed, a momentous shift in corporate philosophy.