INSPIRING BROWN INDUSTRIES TO GREENUP – A CONVERSATION WITH DAN HENDRIX

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dan Hendrix, who happens to be Chairman of the Board of Directors of both Interface and TreeZero, to discuss the foundations for sustainability at Interface, views on transitioning from a linear to circular economy and his vision for TreeZero.

What follows are excerpts from my conversation with Dan.

  • Dan, can you provide some insights into what motivated Interface to take such a risky and innovative path to sustainability back in the mid-1990’s?

When Interface started in 1973, it was a brown company in a brown industry.  As the business grew, customers, designers, associates and other stakeholders began questioning company leadership about our commitment to the environment.

Like most companies, our initial response was, we comply with the law.  In 1994, our founder, Ray Anderson, read a book,  The Ecology of Commerce, which he said impacted him like a spear in his chest.  It inspired Ray to radically change the culture of the company and set us on a journey to phase-out our reliance on petroleum for raw materials and fuel.  Ray defined our challenges on seven fronts, taking us on a journey that was like attempting to climb a summit higher than Mount Everest.

As we developed our strategic approach to sustainability – it evolved into our go-to market strategy.  We measured our carbon, water and waste footprints.  We established baselines and set long-term goals to eliminate our emissions.  We removed waste from products in ways that improved their performance.

Ray inspired our associates toward a higher purpose – that working for Interface was bigger than a paycheck – there was a better way to make carpet – one that would not harm the planet.  We all bought in – in a big way.  We changed the whole business model and pushed our industry to evolve from an industrial plunderer to a sustainable one.

  • What is the business case for sustainability?

The business case for sustainability requires creating innovations to help you deliver on your promises; capturing market share; and growing the category.  Sustainable goods and services are typically going to cost more than a commodity – because they internalize the environmental and social costs most companies outsource to the community. Innovation, along with good-will, funds sustainability.

  • What moments of truth standout from Interface’s journey toward sustainability?

Bringing our suppliers along for the ride.  Seeking advice from world-class experts and then walking the talk when others began to waver.  A real watershed moment came during a milestone update on our largest ever R&D effort – which was a project to close the loop – to enable us to recycle old carpet as a raw material to make our new products.  With mounting costs and increasing complexity, there was significant pressure to cancel the effort.  But our team reminded us that we had publicly committed to using recycled carpet; technically it was feasible; and the future success of the company rested on us delivering on that promise.

  • Is there a secret sauce to Interface’s sustainability success?

There are several ingredients that influence our success with sustainability.  A key revelation happened when we began to seriously consider how nature would make carpet tiles.  There is no waste in nature and everything in nature looks different.  First, we had to determine whether it was even possible to make every tile look different from the next.  Once that hurdle was overcome, principles that mimic nature were incorporated into our design process.  While there were some skeptics, facility operators loved the product.  It enabled them to seamlessly replace damaged tiles with new ones that did not break the existing visual pattern.   Biomimicry really helped open the $100 million plus education market for Interface.

  • How do you define circular economy ?

It’s a pretty simple concept where three stakeholders: the community, the environment and the business all benefit.  It requires that you to bring others with you – as you create a better approach to product design and production – delivering benefits to the business and environment while giving back to society. It has to be self-funding.  We dematerialized our products – light weighting them – and they performed better. We make long-term commitments to purchase from diverse suppliers.  We significantly improved the efficiency of our factories; experimented with all kinds of renewable energy options and even designed the longest landfill to natural gas pipeline project in the nation to power boilers at one of our factories.

Following Ray’s lead, I launched  Mission Zero ® in 2001 – it was a stake in ground stating what we were going to do – eliminate our carbon footprint, maximize recycled content – reduce water use while delivering a superior product and service.  After nearly 20 years, I am proud to say we are getting really close to achieving each of those goals.

  • What’s the next sustainability or business challenge for Interface?

After the world financial crisis, many businesses took a step back from sustainability, reducing the resources deployed against energy efficiency, renewables and recycling. Not Interface.

We interviewed our employees and what kept coming back was the need to set more ambitious goals, ones bigger than reducing the footprint of our business, goals that solve challenges outside of Interface, including global warming.  We believe this is the most significant issue facing humanity and we felt we could not continue to discuss and practice sustainability without addressing it and putting it front and center.  And Interface associates – or better yet our ambassadors – believe it is time to double down on our efforts to reverse global warming.

We want our business to move toward positive impacts, including in our operations and our products, we aspire to have our factories to operate like forests – to evolve and take carbon from the atmosphere – and to store carbon in our products.  We call this new mission, Climate Take Back™ and we want to share it with the world.

  • What motivated you to invest in TreeZero?

I was an early investor in TreeZero.  I love the passion of the people at TreeZero. It’s an easy concept to sell, but hard to execute. I believe TreeZero has the potential to be a catalyst for change in the paper industry.   A carbon copy of Interface, pun intended.  We believe there is a better way to make and sell paper.  TreeZero can help change how people think about paper – biodiversity, deforestation, carbon neutrality, use of recycled material – matters to large companies, local governments, colleges and universities.  TreeZero is a pivot or disruptive company.  It was a natural fit to come on board and help.  Sustainability can be a huge catalyst for innovation and that’s certainly true for TreeZero, which has created an alternative to paper products sourced from trees by tapping into an agricultural waste stream. The team at TreeZero is poised to grow the company, make a positive impact on society and reduce environmental impacts.  It’s an exciting time to be a part of the journey.

  • What is your vision for TreeZero?

To provide the highest quality products and services while reducing the impact of making, selling and using paper.  Be a big influencer.  To shine a light on the paper industry and say, hey, there is a better way to do this. TreeZero is going to be disruptive.  We strive to become the alternative to recycled content paper.

  • Why should organizations and individual buy TreeZero paper?

Waste is nothing but unsellable product.  Climate change is real.  Eventually, all organizations in North America will have to report their carbon footprint and implement programs to offset their emissions.  TreeZero provides a value-added quality product that serves as a simple example of a better way of doing business.  It is a transformative product; one that helps reduce waste, deforestation and climate change.  Forward thinking companies, local governments and universities that care about sustainability love our product; and growing numbers of organizations and individuals know using it is the right thing to do.

  • Dan, can you please give us a quick run-down on your bio?

I grew up in Florida and graduated from Florida State University.  I joined Interface, Inc. a leader in the commercial carpet tile industry, in 1983. I became the chief financial officer in 1985.  I had the pleasure of working alongside Interface Founder Ray Anderson, as he put the company on an ambitious path to zeroing out our environmental footprint.  I was appointed Interface president and CEO in 2001.  I retired as CEO in March of 2017; and continue to service as Chairman of the company.

In November of 2017, I was named chairman of the board for  TreeZero .

My wife and I have two grown children.

Sustainability Pays… But, It Requires Investment

More than 400 purchasing gurus and sustainability wallahs gathered in Minneapolis for the 5th annual Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC) May 14-16. SPLC has become the premier event where professionals with purchasing responsibility and budget interact with corporate, government, university and sustainability strategists.

Circular economy, stewarding embedded water, deforestation, sustainable financing, and challenges with global recycling markets were just a few of the issues, trends and innovations that were debated, discussed and dissected.

A highlight every year is Connect, where attendees can book as many as twelve 20-minute one-on-one meetings with peers, suppliers, customers and experts.  Conversations were focused, useful information was gleaned and many a lead harvested.

More than 25 diverse organizations from Ecolab, Cubehydro, Interface, and TreeZero to the United Nations were represented in the exhibit area – a recycled train depot.

A highlight was SPLC’s 5th anniversary party held at US Bank Stadium – the Gold LEED Certified – home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. Attendees were treated to a behind the scenes tour of this marvelous 68,000 plus capacity stadium that somewhat resembles a Viking ship.

US Bank Stadium is 100% powered by renewable wind energy.  Rainwater is collected, stored, filtered and slowly recharged into the local aquifer – eliminating the need to pump runoff into the city’s sewer system.  Nearly all packaging used in the stadium is compostable.  Administrative offices use 100% post-consumer recycled paper.  As host of Super Bowl LII, 91% of all game day waste, more than 63 tons, were recycled, composted, reused or donated.

The 6th Annual SPLC will be held in Portland, OR in mid-May 2019.  TreeZero plans to attend again because we’ve seen the ROI in a number of ways, not only in our business deals coming out of the Summit, but also the invaluable brand visibility in front of hundreds of sustainability and procurement leaders.