After re-reading the myth of Penelope’s web, it is possible to find much more than a simple ruse to cheat the suitors, but a symbol of the reversibility and circularity of processes. Everything can be taken apart and done again, with some guile.

Probably, when Ray Anderson, the American entrepreneur thought about a yarn for textile flooring which could be disassembled and reassembled did not have this passage of the Odyssey in mind, but he certainly resorted to some cunning, because he understood that the best way to limit environmental impacts of production processes was that of creating reversible and regenerable products. In a word, circular.

That’s why in 1994 Ray Anderson transformed Interface Inc., the American company that he created in 1973 in Georgia in the USA, specialized in the production of quality textile flooring – wall-to-wall carpets in simple terms – in a symbol of the circular economy. Long before the term was used in the sustainability discourse. Ray Anderson (who died in 2011, author’s note) was not an environmentalist. And yet his conversion led him inadvertedly to become a symbol of another way to produce. He became the creator of a new thought, the industrial ecologism, so aptly described in his book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose – Doing Business by Respecting the Earth (2009).

Renewable Matter wanted to tell the story of Interface by visiting LaGrance factory in Georgia to interview Erin Meezan, Chief Sustainability Officer of Interface in order to understand how to transform an ordinary manufacturing company into a global leader of the circular economy, now quoted in any text on the subject. During the visit of Interface’s plant it is difficult not to be gobsmacked before the elegance of the Awarehouse (from a crasis between awareness and warehouse), the company’s large exhibition and production space. And the results obtained are also bewildering, all certified by third parties. Some figures: since 1996, Interface has reduced climate-changing gas emissions by 98.5%; it has cut energy use by 64% (today 85% is produced by renewable sources); water consumption has been reduced by 98%; waste landfilling has been eliminated, and the average production waste has dropped by one fifth. Overall, one Interface textile flooring module ontains one third less CO2 compared to fifteen years ago. And now the target is to eliminate its emissions and consumption. Not bad at all.

On entering the Awarehouse, the company’s devotion to sustainability is obvious. From energy-producing floors when walked over at the Energy Floors entrance, to LEED-certified buildings (LEED is the sustainability certification of buildings promoted by Green Building Council, author’s note). The nearby showroom and factory, as well as all the 17 Interface plants throughout the world, are built around the concept of recovery of matter, while communicating the importance of such effort.

Erin Meezan, you know very well the history of Interface. How has this conversion from energy-consuming company to a regenerative one happened?

“1994. The company was running smoothly. It so happened that during a bid for tender for a real estate project in California, one of the first zero-emission super efficient builings, Interface did not manage to win: all the necessary sustainability requirements were missing. When managers became aware of that, Ray Anderson began to wonder why we had lost that job and if there was something we could do. So he started to get his act together: we had to become more sustainable. He scheduled a company meeting to present this new business vision. But as the meeting got closer, Ray started panicking. What needs to be done? What solutions must be adopted?

“The flash of intuition came when Ray found on his desk a copy of the book by Paul Hawken The Ecology of Commerce, where the crisis of the Earth, the decline of the biosphere and the role played by the big corporations are described. When he came to the chapter ‘The Death of Birth,’ about the fact that it is actually the business world which is part of the problem, the key to stop the environmental decline, Ray, which at the time was 60, had en epiphany. Such a shocking one that he used that word for years when telling his conversion. At the company meeting, everybody expected a traditional solution, such as ‘waste reduction’ or ‘increase energy efficiency in the production.’ But he surprised everybody when he announced: ‘Interface must achieve zero environmental impact and must work to regenerate the environment.’

“To do that, a framework of radical work was established. First of all we looked for support outside the company. The first to be involved was Paul Hawken himself, then a group of constructors of the building in California which refused the bid for tender was contacted and then David Brower, one of the founders of the Sierra Club (one of America’s largest environmental associations, author’s note). With this eco-dream team Ray organized the work: reduce waste to a minimum, 100% energy use from renewable sources, close all technological as well as matter cycles and guarantee all materials are used in the production system. The overall picture is based on the assumption, \'How would nature manage a company?\'”

So, the circular vision has been there since the very beginning.

“Yes, it has been at the heart of the strategy from the very start. We worked on the ability to employ recycled materials, rather than virgin ones, thus eliminating the concept of waste. A thrilling vision, both from an economic and environmental perspective. A new vision that would have unanimously defined Interfaces’s nature. Indeed, the circular model was easily transferrable to the factory too, showing workers how much a kilo of wasted yarn was worth and how many tonnes of production waste generated on a daily basis could become a new resource. Once this was understood, employees could act accordingly, without wasting and contributing to a stategy that improved revenue.

“Moreover, having a limited amount of money for sustainability, rather than investing straight away in solar systems – which in 1996 had a very bad payback on investments because of the costs of that technology at the time – choosing to work on the recovery of waste helped capital savings, which could then be used to install photovoltaic panels on a large scale and adopt sustainability measures.”

How did you manage to recover matter to produce new textile flooring?

“At the beginning, in order to recycle modular textile flooring we concentrated on the technology to separate the backing material (the part in latex, jute or synthetic) from yarns and so they could be sent to suppliers for recycling. ReEntry was thus created, Interface’s supply chain circular model. The first step was the technology crushing the backing material which was then melted together with other materials through the CoolBlue™ system, producing the new one. But initially we did not have market data, we did not know how much we should charge for the product and what the margins would be. What we knew was that we did not have to pay anything extra for recycling. We carried on without knowing how the market would have reacted, trusting the assumption ‘devoted to our mission.’”

You are market leaders, I’d say the market reacted very well. With ReEntry 2.0 today you have modules 80% produced with recycled and regenerated materials, yarns included.

“We achieved such results in less than ten days. When we started, we had no choice as to the recycled yarn from suppliers. So we summoned Aquafil from Italy and Universal in the USA, explaining to them our new vision, in order to find systems to recover yarn. And Aquafil singled out a solution: the use of old fishing nets. The brilliant idea was to launch with Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London the Net-Works programme, to work with local communities of fishermen, who are affected by the impacts of fishing nets, that are often thrown out at sea or lost on the sea bottom becoming traps for fish and dolphins. Then we focussed on Danajon Bank, in the Philippines (one of the world’s six double barrier reefs and one of the main marine ecosystems in the entire Pacific Ocean, author’s note), where most people make a living from the sea. Thanks to Aquafil, making nets in Slovenia, turning them into Econyl, we created – an economically solid supply chain – by paying local communities to pick up nets in the ocean, work them and send them to our suppliers. An effective business model as shown by the fact that today we have a second location in Cameroon. In the future we will continue to concentrate our efforts to increase the social benefits of our production chain, not just limiting ourselves to recycling and environmental regeneration.”

So, does circular also mean social?

“In order to have a true circular economy the fact that the company uses its products or the competitors’ is not enough. It must have a strategy to use any matter that is not entirely exploited, creating employment and healing situations of environmental distress. Just as with fishing nets, we can create community-based models, on a small scale and worldwide, thus constantly increasing matter supply.”

Interface is a model. What would you say to those asking for advice?

“We need to keep the system as closed as possible and in addition to the materials used we need to focus our efforts to create circularity on the most used materials, trying to understand whether one has the ability to transform matter. But more importantly the supply chain dynamics must be thoroughly understood, finding out where we can act and how we can involve suppliers. We must lead by example. We knew how to recycle backing materials for floors: we had credibility with suppliers, we knew the costs and problems linked to the supply chain. So we could advise them in the best possible way.”

There is an element rarely considered in the circular economy models: man. Has the creation of a restricted production cycle generated employment?

“During the first years of the Obama administration there was a lot of interest in green jobs: I remember numerous conversations with the federal government interested in understanding how many jobs could generate a solution such as that adopted by Interface. With the ReEntry programme we created many jobs. Not only that, we changed how it is perceived: employers feel more motivated working in a company willing to help the planet. A few years back we tested through an app the level of involvement of staff in the production process. The result was that the most satisfied and positively involved workers were those working in the recycled backing line, i.e. those who contributed the most to the company mission. We are not considering here the humane aspect of the Net-work project, which created jobs where there were none. In the Philippines, Net-works means being able to send kids to school, access to health care, conserving barrief reefs.

“Here is a piece of adivice I would like to give you: ‘Have a clear development path, where you can influence in a positive and direct way people’s lives.’”

Being radically circular, has it represented an advantage over your competitors?

“Absolutely. We have always been sustainable commercial textile flooring producers. When the LEED certification system was introduced, we were the only product which complied with it, and that was an advantage. Only later, many have followed our model.”

In order to be a circular company, what kind of scale and structure must be adopted?

“We have 17 manufacturing companies throughout the world operating in a decentralized way. One of our competitors sends all material to be recycled to a single location, in the USA, for the re-processing. If this allows a high level of quality check, it is a highly inefficient system because of logistical reasons. We believe that the system must be site specific, must be flexible and original. The scale is the most interesting aspect of our reflection on the concept of the circular economy. There is no use in concentrating everything in a centralized location, in seeing how much in every location which resources can be used, adapting to different systems. India is not the USA, China is not Northern Ireland (All Interface production sites, author’s note). We need to create light, fluid and mobile production lines. This is our challenge. It was the Net-Works programme that showed us how to work with small communities and face problems on such scale.”

Now you are aiming for zero impact with your Zero Mission®.

“It is still three years away, we are getting there and we still wonder: what is the next step to take? The next challenges are about how this company can act as positive force to stop climate change and to diminish poverty and inequality. We still have not done enouth socially. Of course we have passed on the values of the circular economy to over 5,000 employees so that they could also be applied outside Interface. During the registration of a document on Interface, an employee dealing with our Australian production plant said, ‘I talked [about the circular economy] to my parents, their factory could be organized as a waste-free closed cycle. And they were thrilled about that.’ This is a clear sign that people are interested.

“The same is true for Northern Ireland, where companies are encouraged not to produce waste for landfills. Our local manager for sustainability makes sure that everything is recycled. When he does not manage to come to an agreement with suppliers he finds a solution of some sort. Now we have started a programme for ‘ambassadors of sustainability’ and we will try our best so that every employee, every worker can take part in it. In this way they will be able to acquire new skills and professional abilities.”

You have been trying to introduce a product-as-a-service model. What does it take to set up such a different sales system to that based on transfer of ownership?

“Two things: increase the volume (of contracted product, author’s note) and educate consumers about this model. So it is important to find a contractual agreement allowing us to hold ownership of textile flooring and to recover them at the end of their life. It should not necessarily be a lease, it can be a buy-back or a binding agreemnt of end-of-life recovery. A backing federal law forbidding the landfilling of flooring would be useful: in the USA, they are amongst the first five products, by volume, to be landfilled, together with nappies. California was one of the first countries to introduce a law to create collection infrastructure. And it was very successful. This makes us think that instead of sending from California to Georgia the material to recover, can we build a piece of light infrastructure overthere sending regenerated yarn and backing material directly to suppliers? Every obstacle can become a fresh success. We are confident we will reach our Zero Mission target and that we will work with increasingly sustainable products – such as TacTile, a puzzle-like assembly system, where glue is no longer necessary, with positive impacts on health and material consumption – and on new business models. Ray’s epiphany has not died with him. His dream goes on with his company.”

Paul Hawken published with Edizioni Ambiente Natural Capitalism (“Capitalismo naturale,” new edition 2011) and Blessed Unrest (“Moltitudine inarrestabile,” 2009)