Research and application often appear to live in separate worlds, but sometimes they come together in a way that shines light on both. What if a company could change direction radically by adopting a shared and valued purpose? Interface, Inc. did just that.
An Existence Proof: Interface, Inc.
In this YouTube video, Anderson describes how little he wanted to make the address because he didn’t have such a vision. Then he read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. He experienced the book like a spear through the heart, coming to see his company’s practices as the “way of the plunderer.” I don’t know the full story, but by the end of the year, Ray Anderson and his employees set a goal that by 2020, Interface, Inc. would take nothing from the earth that is not readily and rapidly restorable. Search in YouTube — there are several videos, including this TED talk by Ray Anderson. Notice who was involved: first customers, then employees, then company leadership, who kept it going by speaking about it frequently, as he puts it, continually dropping pebbles in the pond to keep the ripples going.
What impact does this shared and valued purpose have on the company? Customers have embraced it. Employees have been inspired by it, inventing new approaches and ways to recycle and reuse. Costs are down. Good will is up. Sales are up. Employees are galvanized and tapping into a wellspring of innovation.
Purpose is a Group Thing
- Involving a wide range of stakeholders — people at every level of the company, customers, suppliers, and so on
- Occurring in multiple languages — including different terms and expressions used by researchers, engineers, accountants, marketeers, and so on.
- Seeking external validation — The challenge came from customers. What did they think of the response? Engineers came up with new approaches. What did experts in their fields think?
- Communicating the message over and over again in a consistent way — Ray Anderson’s ripples in the pond
- Framing sustainability in terms of a higher purpose. Vaccaro says that the CEO expressed this purpose as “responsibility for all creation.” Glen Thomas, an Interface, Inc. employee, wrote a poem that captures this purpose, Tomorrow’s Child. Ray Anderson reads it out loud at the end of the TED talk. This poem puts sustainability in terms of an unborn child:
Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander; what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.
- Rejecting “greenwash” — not pretending to be more sustainable than they actually are. This is the character strength of Integrity and Honesty in action, being honest with themselves and the rest of the world
- Developing a comprehensive measurement system (EcoMetrics) so that they could see progress and know where progress was still needed. What is measured gets managed.
- Blending novelty and continuity. One idea, for example is to lease carpet instead of selling it. The company can set up a natural recycling loop by installing and maintaining carpet, taking it back from customers, and turning it into new carpet. It beats digging carpet out of landfills to recycle.
- Persisting in the face of opposition — Another character strength at work.
- Building a team committed to sustainability — No one of us can do it alone.
Taking on the ‘Impossible’ Together
A shared and valued purpose can be part of a corporate culture, a statement that reflects shared values and that inspires shared action, even taking on monumental goals.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote an article called Sustainability: From Denial and Depression to Hope and Personal Responsibility. It is just so easy to look around and feel that the task is too big, that we cannot do anything about the plundering of the earth in which we participate. But many things become possible with a purpose that is both valued and shared. Perhaps together we can also reach another point that Ray Anderson describes at the end of the TED Talk: more happiness with less stuff.
Vaccaro, G. (2007). Leading change by engaging stakeholders in organizational narratives of higher purpose: How interface, Inc. became one of the world’s most profitable and ecologically sustainable businesses. Dissertation from Benedictine University. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 68(3-A), 1078.
From the abstract: The study extends understanding of narrative theory and the dynamics of organizational change by proposing that change is facilitated when people become engaged as collective subjects of the emerging organizational narrative, connect the narrative to a deeply meaningful purpose, and align the organization by embedding the new narrative in the organization’s culture.
Anderson, R. (2009). Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose–Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. St. Martin’s Press.
Hawken, P. (1994). The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. HarperBusiness.
Hawken, P. (2008). Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Back Bay Books.