16.11.2005, 17:52

Sustain and Gain (Duplicate)

FM Magazine met with Lindsey Parnell, President and CEO (Europe) of Interface to discuss how the company is leading a worldwide war on waste.

With the environment becoming an increasingly important concern, the concept of sustainable development has just started to get a foothold in the GCC. FM Magazine met with Lindsey Parnell, President and CEO (Europe) of Interface to discuss how the company is leading a worldwide war on waste.


Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and melting polar glaciers are just some of the climatic changes the world is presently undergoing. Throw in frequent earthquakes and catastrophic tsunamis and ‘doomsday mongers’ begin to sound credible. “The end is nigh” reads a protester's placard. It is now warmer than at any point in the past 1,000 years and nine of the 10 warmest years have occurred in the past decade. Indeed, climatologists estimate that global warming has led to the deaths of 150,000 people since 1970.

So what is the international community doing about this? In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed. The objective of the convention is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will avoid dangerous rates of climate change”. The Kyoto Protocol – which came into force in February 2005 and pitifully omits the United States, the world’s largest polluter – requires developed nations to cut emissions by just five per cent compared to 1990 levels. This is a tiny first step, and is far less than the cuts required, which are around 80 per cent.

On the corporate level, the response to this climatic crisis has been the birth of ‘sustainability’ as a clearly defined and packaged set of business processes. However, as with nation states, there are huge disparities in the manner and force with which companies assume sustainable practices.

“I think there are four types of companies when it comes to sustainability,” says Lindsey Parnell, President and Chief Executive Officer (Europe) of Interface, the largest manufacturer of modular commercial carpet in the world. “One that genuinely is interested in making a difference. Another that is driven by legislation and compliance. A third type which has a growing interest but is not quite sure where it started and what it should do about it. And the fourth category is ‘keep it down here’ [out of sight]. Sooner or later they will be overtaken by either legislation or economics. I think we are in that first category, primarily because we had a 10-year head start.”

Interface believes that the term ‘sustainability’ is much misunderstood, and often perceived as synonymous with ‘environmentally friendly’. But it means much more. “For us, sustainability represents the ultimate challenge to our business – to create a company that successfully integrates the needs of the environment and society,” says Parnell.

With four out of every 10 carpet tiles sold in the world having been designed and produced by Interface, just what is the company doing for the green revolution? “We generally find ourselves along way ahead of legislation,” says Parnell on the sidelines of the launch of a new range of products, I² Inspiration Squared, in Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Hotel. “We started an exercise called QUEST, which stands for Quality Utilising Employee Suggestions and Training, back in 1996. It’s a formalised waste reduction exercise that counts waste costs and energy usage at a very detailed level throughout our factories.”

Parnell says QUEST has saved the company $240 million dollars from its inception to last year, with waste being reduced by 80 per cent, greenhouse gas emissions down by 46 per cent, energy consumption down by 31 per cent and a 28 percent increase in the use of non-petrochemical-based materials.

Lindsey Parnell and Chris King of Interface
Lindsey Parnell and Chris King of Interface

To many, saving money through sustainable practices may be seen as a contradiction in terms, but not to Interface. “We would challenge that it actually costs millions [to adopt sustainable practices] and in actual fact, if you are serious enough, you save money,” says Parnell, adding that the company is driven by economic pressure on Wall Street as much as everybody else. Being conscientious doesn’t cost anything. “We consider not just ways of saving money – but also more tangible forms of sustainable forms such as not sticking waste materials into landfills – which is both harmful and expensive.”

If you use more energy recycling a product than is required to manufacture it again from raw materials, you are not ready to recycle – in actual fact, it would be the wrong thing to do.

Waste reduction plays a big part in Interface’s strategy. But the green mantra ‘reuse, reduce, and recycle’ must also take into consideration other factors, such as energy usage. A common misconception is to associate environmental sustainability with recycling. “If you use more energy recycling a product than is required to manufacture it again from raw materials, you are not ready to recycle – in actual fact, it would be the wrong thing to do,” Parnell says. “Further work would need to be done to enable you to recycle more efficiently. Recycling for recycling’s sake is not quite the way forward.”

In the GCC, given the relatively inexpensive cost of products derived from the petrochemical industry, such as bitumen, it does not always make economic sense to recycle. However, as oil prices continue to rise, this may soon change.

There are many forms and degrees of recycling. It rarely equates to the full reconstitution of a disposed product into its original state. When Interface talks about recycling, it refers to the use of recycled ‘ingredients’ in its products. “At the moment we can produce carpets that have a recycled back, and that back’s been made from part of our old product,” explains Parnell. “We buy yarns that are made from a recycled yarn, but at the moment the technology to take the existing carpet tile and reduce it to its component parts, to recycle it perfectly, still doesn’t exist with us or any of our competitors.”

The task of ‘perfectly recycling’ a carpet tile is made difficult by the number of different elements that it is made up of. Interface is working on technology that will separate the yarn from the back of the tile and the company is researching recently developed varieties of polymer that are made from renewable resources.

You could say that in every market there’s the question of price, but here price outweighs everything else.

Interest in sustainability varies considerably around the world, with countries such as Germany, India and those in Scandinavia leading the way. In the GCC, however, it’s still early days. “You could say that in every market there’s the question of price, but here price outweighs everything else,” says Chris King, Interface’s regional manager. “If you base your decision purely on price, we will offer our lowest price, move up into Jebel Ali and keep stocking it and that's not really going to raise the bar at all with what we are trying to do here. We've gone for a mid-level price range product with all the whistles and bells if you like of the random story.”

The ‘random story’ refers to a series of modular carpet tile ranges launched by Interface which can be fitted in any order and in any orientation. “From a facilities manager’s perspective, the emphasis will be on lifecycle costing,” says Parnell. “And that’s where random carpet really scores. Random is the first kind of carpet tile that allows you to take a tile from a different batch two years later and drop it onto the installation. Because of the pattern and correlation, you don’t see it.” As such, every flooring scheme is subtly unique, stock dependency becomes a thing of the past, and waste is heavily reduced.

A study undertaken by Interface in a 1,765m² office found that approximately 13 per cent of material (230m²) is wasted during an average installation of traditional broadloom carpet. With modular carpet (tiles), installation waste drops to less than four per cent (68m²). And with randomly installed tiles, installation waste practically disappears, at less than one per cent.

The latest Interface range, I² Inspiration Squared, is based on a concept called biomimicry – ‘a science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from them to solve human problems’. As such, the randomness and diversity of this range were derived from studying natural outdoor ‘floors’, such as fallen leaves. Interface views biomimicry as a ‘roadmap to sustainability’ as it encourages us to learn from the natural world. Parnell concludes: “Even if we do not mention sustainability at all, our designs are known to be interesting and the random range is a good example of Interface setting a pace for others to follow.”


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