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.
Ripple in rain courtesy of joka2000
Monsoon 4 courtesy of Sukanto Debnath
It’s not easy to articulate, or to get people to agree to it, or even to get people to think about it in the first place. Yet it is not peripheral or a waste of time — it can change the entire experience of work.
For example, think about being an administrative assistant in a major university for a biology department that is doing research on biological ways to clean up oil spills. You can either think of your work as pushing paper around and dealing with prima dona faculty, or you can think of your work as a contribution to a possible way to clean up the Gulf of Mexico. Both ways of thinking about it are reasonable, but the sense of meaning is very different.
I would love to hear other stories of the difference made by a shared and valued purpose.
Thank you for providing this inspiring story. I am well aware of Interface’s accomplishments in the face of a seemingly unsustainable industry. Yet, it was truly wonderful to see Ray Anderson’s story couched in a positive psychology context. I’m afraid that this is not being done often enough, particularly regarding efforts to minimize our treading on the Earth.
One particularly insightful comment in your blog post was the way you addressed the rejection of “green-washing” by calling on the character strength of integrity and honesty. As many of us know, this may be what truly sets Interface apart from other companies that are trying to do the right thing, but failing miserably.
Thanks again, Kathryn, for your elevating post!
Kathryn…Thanks for sharing the Interface story – a great example of how business can be an agent for world betterment. I had the pleasure of learning about Interface at the World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Nepal last November. One of their execs, Jim Hartzfeld, shared the Interface story as a keynote presenter. He shared how they took an AI approach to bring the whole system into the change and create a shared vision & purpose. In his words, “Problem solving is insufficient to imagine and achieve a sustainable future”.
So I wonder if it makes sense to think of corporations having character strengths. Are some organizational cultures characterized by creativity or curiosity or persistence or perspective or integrity or hope or humor … or even spirituality?
If a company is trying to do the right thing but failing miserably, might it not come from a lack of conviction that change is really possible? That’s where stories such as the one about Interface, Inc. help. They create the sense of possibility on which change must be based.
Thanks for your comment.
Thank you for the quotation from Jim Hartzfeld’s talk. Did he have any more details about how things worked out, how they moved beyond problem solving?
Wonderful post, Kathryn! I feel happier every time I see commitment to sustainability reflected on deeply in positive psychology circles. Ray Anderson came to Philadelphia last year to speak for 350.org — an organization cheeky enough to claim right upfront, “we’re building a global movement to solve the climate crisis… join us!” — so I heard his story then. Great to see it here!
As I understand it, according to the latest science we have about ten years to solve the climate crisis (before an irreversible tipping point that is) and to learn how to protect our oceans, — so I look forward to a growing slew of deep green articles, posts, books, lectures and creativity from PP people during this decade. Maybe this is the time we can all fall in love with clean air and water, healthy soil and the delicious food that results from best environmental practices — learning to protect these resources the way you would a lover, learning to project into the future, as in the beautiful simple poem written by the employee, cherishing the children to come.
My question is this: since the U.S. military is the world’s biggest polluter and the world’s biggest consumer of oil, who is going to be the Ray Anderson of the U.S. military? Is it possible for the U.S. military to change towards sustainability rapidly and radically the way a carpet company can change? Or is it possible that the product produced by the U.S. military is obsolete? Since Positive Psychology as an institution is in a deep, committed, lasting relationship with the U.S. military, do we have a responsibility to address this question? What are we doing to create AWE — an After-War Era?
My son did a middle school project on the environmental impact of war. It was hair-raising to think of uncontrolled destruction and waste — fossil fuels sunk in ships and so on. As for your question about AWE, wouldn’t it be something if we could ratchet up the non-zero-sum level to the world at large, as per Robert Wright’s book, Nonzero. He suggests that nonzero scope ratchets up when people have to unite to confront a shared challenge. Perhaps that is what averting climate disaster will do for humanity.
I’m adding a link to your comment to 350.org — in case people want to follow your lead. It’s a lot about creating a sense of possibility — that we do have the ability individually and collectively to make a difference.
Hi Kathryn, this is an excellent article with lots to think about. It is interesting also your comment about the impact of war on the planet. I was recently listening to a debate on the use of nuclear power as a way to reduce our dependence on oil. One reason why nuclear power loses when you do an analysis of the most effective sources of energy with the least adverse impact on the planet is because you have to assume that the nuclear technology will also be used for weapons which will eventually be detonated. In other words, if we had a peaceful planet, the solutions to the world’s energy problems would be easier and cleaner.
If you like Non-zero, have you also read “Childhood’s End” a classic sci-fi novel by Arthur C. Clarke? It imagines the evolution that Wright describes (but in response to alien invaders instead of an environmental crisis.)
What startled me about the project on war and the environment wasn’t the potential for humans to hurt humans. As a child of the 20th century, that carries few surprises for me. But what amazed me was how little I’d ever thought about what happens to the environment when humans blow up bridges or train stations or oil refineries or even trucks with full tanks. All that non-renewable energy just poured down the drain … except that it causes immense damage as it goes. We worry about the oil in the gulf. What about oil wells that were burning in the Mid East? It doesn’t matter who does it — we’re all hurt by it.
Thanks for the book suggestion. I haven’t checked out Childhood’s End for a very long time.