Last week, I participated in the seminar “Sustainable innovation – A step into the future”, arranged by The Natural Step in Stockholm (March 6). The seminar brought together participants from various professions to discuss innovative business models and sustainability strategies and to learn from real business cases in Sweden and abroad.
At the seminar, The Natural Step staff took the opportunity to share their results from a recent study, in which they interviewed a number of Swedish companies to assess their sustainability progress and to learn from their work. A key outcome of the study was nine factors that the Natural Step identified as being critical for a successful business model. These were: 1) to have a leadership that views sustainability as a key driving force; 2) to have a broad and deep engagement within the company; 3) to aim at full sustainability; 4) to formulate a sustainability ambition that is operative and concrete; 5) to create security that fosters courage; 6) to create new value through sustainable development; 7) to adopt a system perspective; 8) to develop cross-boundary cooperation; and 9) to be open to change. The report will soon be available publically.
Apart from presentations by invited speakers, the seminar also included brainstorming sessions in small groups and group presentations of the discussion outcomes. The group sessions focused on identifying factors that are essential for achieving a more sustainable society at large (see photos below).
Key note speaker at the seminar was Geanne van Arkel, who is Head of Sustainable Development at Interface in the Benelux. Interface is the largest carpet producing company in the world and also an international company with an exceptionally proactive and holistic sustainability approach. Their high sustainability ambitions were set already 1994 by the company’s founder Ray Anderson. This man was early to realize a need to shift the company’s business model towards increased sustainability. The company hence set out on its journey “MissionZero”. As Geanne expressed, the sustainability agenda of Interface today permeates the entire company. By taking small and sometimes radical steps in the same direction, they are systematically working towards realizing their highest vision, i.e. to “reach the top of mount Sustainability”, as they here put it. This metaphor has become a “mental image” for the whole staff for uniting in their mission. Their aim is not just to minimize adverse environmental impacts but to be “restorative” by nature. (Read more here)
While describing Interface’s journey over the last twenty years, Geanne underlined that being an international stocklisted company (in fact the largest carpet producer in the world) is no hinder for aiming at sustainability. And, the benefits for the environment in adopting sustainable business strategies are today quite obvious, but “what’s in it for the business?”, Geanne posed. The multifaceted answer she gave was: i) a growth of revenue and market share; ii) customer loyalty and trust; iii) future-proofing, i.e. being more resilient and adaptive to change; iv) increased profit margins from remanufacturing; v) employee attraction, engagement and retention; and vi) greater innovation. Interface has been working long enough with their sustainability agenda to already see these positive results.
Perhaps most interesting to learn was Interface’s early adoption of central principles of “circular economy”. The “circular approach” is a rising trend among sustainability concerned businesses worldwide today, including fashion companies. Essentially, it implies that products are design and produced in such a way that their biological components (e.g. wood or wool) and technical parts (e.g. polyester, nylon or plastics) can be separated at the product’s end of life, thus facilitating their reuse or recycling. A circular approach also entails certain business strategies that maximize reuse and recycling in society, such as take-back schemes and leasing systems. All these practices are used by Interface.
For example, a majority of Interface’s carpet tiles today contain recycled yarn (source). Some carpets are made of 100% recycled nylon from reclaimed carpet yarn and fishing nets, while other carpets are made of biobased yarn from castor beans. Interface was also early to set up a take-back scheme (in 1994) and a leasing system (in 1995). Reclaimed nylon was made accessible by setting up a partnership with an NGO and their yarn supplier in the Philippines. Together with fishermen, the NGO collects discarded fishing nets, which are then purchased by Interface for use in their production of carpet tiles. Hereby, at least some of the 640 000 tons of fishing nets that are yearly being dumped into the sea can be recycled. Nylon fishing nets are very durable and will stay around in the sea for about 600 years as “ghost nets” if not reclaimed. Watch the film below:
Thus, by creating new cross-sectoral collaborations, new and innovative business models can be attained. This is quite an inspirational example of a company that dares to take the lead despite economic risks, by initiating and investing in new business strategies in favor of environmental sustainability. Here are lessons to be learned also for the apparel industry. Interface’s sustainability agenda is summarized in their “Seven Fronts of Sustainability” (click “FRONT#4”). (For more information, see ref1, ref2, and an article by The Guardian.)
(An early draft of this article was read and revised by Geanne van Arkel, Head of Sustainable Development at Interface.)