Friday, March 10, 2006

Feel-Good News for a Friday

Posted By on Fri, Mar 10, 2006 at 4:42 PM

Most of the news is bad news, but today I've got something that ought to make even the most jaded environmental skeptic happy.

Creative Loafing's Michael Wall has an interesting cover story out this week about an Atlanta carpet company that has been slowly but surely "going green" for the past decade.

In 1994, Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface Flooring Systems changed his company's entire business strategy based on Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce. His goal? To make the company completely self-sustainable by 2020. He's not there yet, but then again, it's not 2020. First, he started small.

At first, Anderson changed the little things: putting recycling barrels for soft drink cans on plant floors and recycling bins for paper in the offices, searching for greener manufacturing materials that weren't made from petroleum products -- materials that unfortunately didn't yet exist.

Later, he changed the way his factory operated.

It used to be that Interface wasted as much as 10 percent of the yarn needed for every batch of carpet tiles. But with the new machines, leftover yarn was respooled. The machines cost the company $5 million, but according to Anderson, they paid for themselves in three years by reclaiming yarn.

He had some setbacks, of course.

But despite the efficiency of Interface's new technology, the company struggled financially in the decade after Anderson's awakening

But he seems to have overcome them.

Only in the last year has the commercial carpet industry made even a modest comeback, and Interface has emerged from the slump with an advantage.

The Green Design concept has been in the works for a while now, but a lot of the strategies are still small-scale, expensive, or entirely theoretical. No matter what your thoughts are on the necessity of environmental consciousness (my father reads this blog ֠hi, Dad ֠and I have suffered through many a parental lecture about why he thinks recycling is impractical), you can't deny that this eco-friendly method seems to be working in the world of carpets.

I was fascinated with the way other carpet businesses dealt with the company's changes. Shaw and Mohawk, two of Interface's competitors, saw what the company was doing and came up with their own product innovations. I once read a book called Gain that followed both the evolution of the American business and the modern consumer via a fictional corporation and a woman who blamed her cancer on the chemical products she ingested while living the typical 20th century lifestyle. The business grew from a small family venture, through the industrial revolution and into a modern corporation that cared only about "the bottom line." As for the consumer, the book never came out and said that all that fake orange powder on the Cheetos she'd been eating killed her, but it did raise the question. I read the book right when the organic foods trend hit, and nearly five years later, I still think about it every time I go to the grocery store, even if I don't actually buy anything organic (let's face it, Cheetos kind of taste good). I wonder if this Interface carpet company is the nonfiction sequel to the novel. In 100 years, will all companies be like this? I'm going to go with "no" but then again, maybe I'm wrong.

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