Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model , (1998, Atlanta, GA: Peregrinzilla Press).
Written by Ray C. Anderson
Reviewed by: Bryan Hogle, November 2008
Most people who feel strongly about environmentalism and sustainability wish that the CEOs of the Fortune 500 would one day realize just how important sustainable practices are for the continued health of our planet and commit themselves to making their corporations sustainable. In the case of Interface, a carpet tile company with over $1 billion in sales in 2007, that is exactly what happened. Faced with giving a kickoff address to his company’s new environmental task force in 1994, CEO Ray Anderson read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and was found himself with a new perspective. He realized just how much damage his company was doing to the Earth, through resource extraction, waste generation and pollution, and devoted himself to a vision of a cyclical, closed loop enterprise that didn’t take from the Earth or expel any waste. Influenced by Hawken and other authors like Rachel Carson and Daniel Quinn, Anderson developed a strategy to reduce, reuse, reclaim, recycle, redesign, adopt best practices, invest in sustainable technologies and encourage his suppliers to do the same.
In seeking to apply his strategy and make Interface more sustainable, Anderson incorporated a number of ideas into a design for the prototype enterprise of the 21st century that he wants his company to become. One of the central ideas in Anderson’s model is to do well economically by doing good for the planet. How does he propose to do this? He suggests three key ways: by earning business through customers’ goodwill, achieving resource efficiency that lowers costs and being so successful in the first two that other companies feel compelled to follow Interface’s example. Technology is another important component of Anderson’s plan. He frequently refers to the environmental impact equation developed by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, I = P x A x T, where I is environmental impact, A is affluence and T is technology. Anderson insists that by changing the nature of technology the equation can become I = P x A / T. In this case, advances in technology would reduce our environmental impact rather than increase it.
These ideas and others are combined in the model for the prototype company through goals on seven “fronts”, or areas of environmental impact. These seven fronts include zero waste, benign emissions, renewable energy, closed loop production processes, resource efficient transportation, improved connections between businesses and communities, and a new system of commerce that internalizes all of the external costs of producing goods. A company achieving success in all these areas would be “strongly service oriented, resource-efficient, wasting nothing, solar-driven, cyclical, strongly connected to [its] constituencies – [its] communities (building social equity), [its] customers, and [its] suppliers – and to one another.” This company would be truly sustainable, environmentally, socially and economically.
The vision is both ambitious and exciting, and Anderson describes some of the steps Interface is taking to make the model reality. One is a waste reduction program called QUEST that has as its goal zero company waste. Under the program, any cost that goes into a product that does not add value for the customer is waste. This includes both material waste and waste generated by poor work practices, such as a misdirected shipment. Another program Anderson has put in place, called EcoSense, works to improve performance in emissions, resource efficiency, and recycling of materials. Interface has also committed itself to The Natural Step, a set of scientifically derived sustainability principles which include the following:
1. Substances from Earth’s crust must not systematically increase in the atmosphere.
2. Substances produced by society (man-made materials) must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
3. The productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished.
4. Therefore, there must be fair and efficient use of resources to meet human needs.
Perhaps the most unique (at the time of introduction) and innovative of its efforts is the Evergreen Lease. This is a perpetual carpet lease in which Interface produces carpet made with recycled material, installs it and takes responsibility for maintaining it indefinitely. Interface owns the carpet, so the lessee never disposes of worn out carpet; instead, old carpet is used by Interface as raw material to make new carpet. The lease eliminates large amounts of waste and reduces the need for virgin raw materials.
These efforts had begun to produce positive results, although at the time the book was published in 1998 Interface’s sustainability programs had only been in place for about three years. In 1995, Interface used 1.224 billion pounds of materials taken from the Earth’s crust to create $802 million in revenues. The following year, then two years into their sustainability efforts, the company increased its sales to $1 billion with no increase in the amount of material extracted or the amount of waste produced. Additionally, by 1997 the company had reduced its total waste by 40 percent, including a decrease of 60 percent in scrap sent from its factories to landfills.
Overall, Anderson provides a coherent picture of what companies should strive for as they look to the future. Influenced by some of the leading thinkers in environmentalism and sustainability, he provides a very comprehensive picture of the changes that will be needed from industry in order to preserve our planet, its people and its natural resources. He lays out frameworks through which companies can begin to understand how the inputs they take from the Earth and the outputs they expel into the biosphere are currently endangering the health of the planet. Anderson then provides general areas at which companies should look to reduce their impact. Government policy and investment in research and new technologies are discussed as points of critical importance. Additionally, Anderson emphasizes the importance of social good and the need for close ties between businesses and the communities they serve. Far from a simple solution, he presents a plan that recognizes the wide array of issues that must be addressed to achieve a sustainable future.
What the plan possesses in breadth and coherence it lacks in depth and practicality. The seven fronts that form the skeleton of the model for the prototype company are excellent as general goals, but Anderson provides very little meat for these fronts that would help give direction to readers seeking to implement his ideas. In discussing community engagement, for example, he talks about why improved relationships are necessary and the benefits that they would bring, but provides virtually no specific examples on who Interface has engaged and how or what actions he recommends for others. The practicality of the ideas that Anderson presents is closely tied to this absence of depth. With few details, there are very few actionable items to be taken from Anderson’s plan, which makes implementation difficult. Additionally, much of the vision that he has for Interface and other companies depends on technologies that are not yet fully developed and government policies that have not been enacted, so the vision is little more than a dream.
Aside from the lack of depth and practicality of the model, there are other weaknesses in the ideas that Anderson presents. One of the most troubling is that he measures the sustainability of Interface in extracted pounds of resources per dollar sales. Here he fails to factor out the effect of increased product prices, even as he notes that part of Interface’s increase in sales revenues was the result of charging more for what they sell. Earning 20 percent more in revenues using the same amount of material would not be an indication of increased sustainability if you charge 20 percent more for your product. Another weakness arises from Anderson’s heavy reliance on the idea of a new environmental impact equation in which technology decreases, rather than increases, impact. While there may be good evidence that this change in the way technology affects the environment is possible, he does not present it. The reader is left to wonder if the new technology equation on which the author bases many of his arguments was developed by environmental experts and exposed to rigorous examination or is simply conjecture by the author about what should be true.
While there are certainly weaknesses in Anderson’s ideas, his story, determination, and vision are inspiring. He very convincingly presents arguments for why companies must change their practices in order to save the planet from ruin. The reader is left with no doubts about his intentions to do everything that he can to make Interface sustainable. Anderson’s plan may lack detail, but it should be recognized that he published A Mid Course Correction in 1998. He sought to set an example for others years before sustainability began to receive the level of attention that it is now given in the business world. His action and vision should be commended.