A leading designer and manufacturer of sustainable flooring options, Interface stays committed to using the latest and most effective methodology in creating product that remains true to the company’s environmental efforts. In its seven manufacturing facilities across the globe, each strives to meet both national and international standards, and work together in a way that creates synergy for the company.
As one operating entity, Interface has made a Mission Zero commitment, setting a goal for 100 percent of its operational energy to come from renewable sources by 2020; this goes for its sites around the world, including showrooms, factories, and headquarters. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve been able to
get to 80-percent [renewable energy] globally,” noted Erin Meezan, vice president and chief sustainability officer for Interface. “Each factory is
focused on getting to zero waste, 100-percent renewable energy, zero carbon emissions, 100-percent recycled or bio-based raw materials, and a very low environmental footprint by 2020. Each [location] will have slightly different strategies, but they are all going for that goal of ‘zero.’”
Kari Pei, lead product designer for Interface Americas and lead hospitality product designer for Interface Global, came to the company after a long career working in commercial product design that became focused on sustainability. When Interface decided to form an in-house design team in the United States, Pei seemed like the perfect fit because of her history with the manufacture of sustainable products.
After 25 years of working with David Oakey of Pond Studios, Interface felt the need to focus on its future and bringing “the design collateral inside,” Pei noted. While Oakey continued to collaborate with the company, Pei and her team have been designing. Starting in June 2015, she spent her first six months at Interface traveling the world and visiting all of the company’s manufacturing facilities.
“In Europe, I spent a lot of time with the design team in northern England, and also at our manufacturing facility in [Scherpenzeel, The Netherlands], which is the leader in sustainable manufacturing in the whole region,” Pei explained. “They have numerous awards for low-carbon-footprint materials and product. They have a Red Dot award and they work with bio-based yarns.” In spending time with these teams, she observed the mentality of responsible manufacturing which helped give her a foundation for how to approach Interface’s efforts in the U.S.
Interface’s production site in Chonburi, Thailand, was the first LEED-accredited manufacturing facility in the country. “In Thailand, we have a lot of flexibility in the way that we manufacture there for efficiency and low waste,” Pei added. “I think primarily the European facilities are really so important in our global approach to responsible manufacturing practices, leading in low carbon footprint, thinking well beyond Cradle to Cradle.” The company also has production sites in Australia, China, Northern Ireland, and two locations in the U.S, in Troup County, Ga., which cater to the North and South American markets.
“We have seven factories around the world, and we’ve spent 20 years trying to get their footprints down—waste, water, nothing to landfill, renewable energy,” Meezan explained. “We don’t only want to eliminate a negative impact at the product level but also at the factory level. We’ve been experimenting with an approach with the Biomimicry Institute, learning lessons from nature for innovation in design and going beyond the zero footprint, asking ourselves, ‘What is the most sustainable factory we can have?’ Well, that would be one that functions exactly like nature and provides the same services as an ecosystem.”
With that, Interface’s factory in New South Wales, Australia, is experimenting with the project “Factory as a Forest,” using the local ecosystem as the basis for its operations. “If we could run a factory like a forest, not only would it have to have no negative environmental footprint but it would also have to have beneficial effects on the local ecosystem: sequester carbon, provide water, provide habitats, enrich soil,” Meezan said. “We are looking at how to put in place a set of building metrics that would allow our factory buildings and campuses to meet these standards—that is the future. We’ve declared we need to move business forward and think about positive impacts. On the product side we are trying out things like Net-Works; on the manufacturing side, projects like Factory as a Forest.”
Net-Works is perhaps one of Interface’s most notable projects. The program began with providing a source of income for small fishing villages in the Philippines while cleaning up discarded fishing nets on the beaches and in the local waters, which ultimately threaten the livelihood of the community and the double barrier reef offshore. Discarded fishing nets are collected and sold to Interface’s yarn supplier and partner, Aquafil. Since 2011, the company has been repurposing waste nylon from discarded fishing nets and other sources, including yarn reclaimed through the ReEntry program to provide recycled-content nylon for Interface carpet tile.
Net Effect is a carpet tile collection resulting from these efforts, taking design inspiration from the worlds’ oceans and biomimicry, the art of imitating nature’s best ideas. As the product designer for Net Effect, Oakey was moved by an interview with famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, realizing how our futures are deeply connected with the water systems on Earth and how important it is to protect them. The collection is a perfect illustration of how Interface has gone beyond the goal of providing aesthetically appealing and visually unique products by also considering the effects and impacts of their manufacturing processes.
Because Interface doesn’t make all of the raw materials that go into its products, like the yarn for carpet tile, it works to get these outside companies functioning within the same parameters when it comes to environmental awareness. “For the last 10 years, we’ve established a framework to be applied to business—cost-efficient ways to find recycled materials, use renewable energy, waste less in factories to save money—and we have taken those lessons directly to our suppliers,” Meezan explained. “We’ve challenged them to give us more sustainable raw materials. Yarn is a big part of our products; we want a lower-carbon-footprint yarn and a recyclable option. If you are a manufacturer of anything in the commercial market, you are beholden to the impacts of your supply chain. We are super-efficient assemblers of someone else’s raw materials; we are taking the next step, going to suppliers, and asking them to provide the same framework and offer some technical assistance. This continues to drive the sustainability mindset in business.”
Pei added, “By ‘sustainable characteristics’ we mean everything that makes up product and the approach [in manufacturing], in addition to the life-cycle analysis at the end; ultimately, being responsible for that product once it’s out in the world—responsible enough that you are taking it back at the end of its useful life. It’s like your children: you raise them to go out and be responsible adults. It’s your responsibility to make sure that they perform that way. That’s how I feel about the products that we create. We have a slew of people who are involved in creating one product—chemists, tufters, yarn manufactures, and us designers—so it is absolutely necessary to have a whole team of people with sustainability at the front of their minds when they are giving input for the creation of the product, and that’s what we have here.”
Global Change, a collection of modular carpet that launched last month, is a new expression of biophilic design. It is the latest installment in Interface's sustainable lineup, which includes World Woven from 2016, Human Nature in 2015, and Net Effect in 2014, taking into consideration all of the environmental aspects that are paramount to Interface, namely low carbon footprint. “The idea is to sell it around the world,” Pei said. “Having so many manufacturing facilities [globally] enables us to behave like a small company. With that, we are able to think locally and regionally with this new collection. We are thinking about shipping and how that impacts the environment; Global Change reflects being concerned about that.” The importance of biophilic design is also included in the new line, as it is “inherent in [Interface’s] thinking and our approach to design.”
Photography courtesy of Interface