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.

Mulling at Work | 09-25-17 Mike Nilan and Jeff Foote with TreeZero

Mulling at Work | 09-25-17 Mike Nilan and Jeff Foote with TreeZero

A version of this interview originally aired on Mulling at Work


The Story

Recently, our CEO and co-founder, Mike Nilan along with Jeff Foote, our SVP, Sustainablity joined Emory Mulling on his Mulling at Work radio show discuss TreeZero’s mission along with the advantages of working for a “green” company. Below is the recording along with a few excerpts from the interview. You can also find the entire conversation on the show’s website!

 

The Highlights

Emory Mulling: What motivates someone to work for a conservation-minded company?

  • MIKE: We have a common value in our company.  We stress fiscal responsibility and sustainability responsbility. It permeates our entire company.

Emory Mulling: As a company with a sustainability focus, what is your approach to managing people? Is it different than managing a company which is not a sustainability-focused company?

  • JEFF: The way you manage people is really important.  It really shouldn’t differ whether you’re a sustainable company or not.

 

The Facts

  • Mike Nilan is Co-Founder and CEO of TreeZero, an Atlanta-based sustainable solutions company that markets, supplies and distributes agro-fiber paper and other environmentally responsible products for Fortune 2000 companies, colleges and universities, government agencies and consumers with a passion for sustainability.TreeZero’s flagship product TreeZero paper is the only premium, 100 percent tree free, carbon neutral paper made from sugarcane waste fiber. It is completely recyclable within existing recycling systems and compostable. According to Ricoh, TreeZero paper delivers excellent print quality when compared to regular recycled paper. TreeZero paper is available at major office supply distributors such as Office Depot/Office Max®, Ricoh Canada, Staples®, Veritiv™, Artlite and W.B. Mason, online at Amazon and in-store at FedEx® Office.Prior to founding TreeZero, Nilan was the CEO of an international sourcing company, The MarketSource, which focused on consumer goods for companies like Pepsi and Tropicana for eight years. Prior to The MarketSource’s success, Nilan served as the Founder, Chairman and CEO of One Coast Network, the largest wholesale gift and home accessory company in North America. To learn more about TreeZero, visit their website, and follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
  • Jeff Foote was appointed Executive Vice President of Sustainability for TreeZero in 2017 to oversee the strategic direction of the company’s sustainability efforts. Foote is charged with marketing and distributing a revolutionary paper product that could potentially save millions of acres of trees each year, in addition to leading the company’s carbon neutrality project and developing the business’s relationships with major environmental groups. Foote previously worked at The Coca-Cola Company, where he was a distinguished sustainability leader for more than 20 years. During his time with Coca-Cola, Foote was an influential leader and conservation-minded executive who played a key role in developing world-class sustainability goals for the company. Foote’s leadership and accomplishments are felt within the local community and around the world. In his hometown of Atlanta, Foote currently serves on the board of the Georgia Recycling Coalition and has previously supported the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Task Force on Controlled Environment and the Green Spirit Farms of Georgia. In his quest for sustainability, he has traveled to all seven continents including Antarctica, where he led two leadership and teamwork expeditions to help inspire over 150 business leaders to reduce impacts on climate and to promote water stewardship. To learn more about TreeZero, visit their website, and follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

World Environment Day: Connecting People to Nature

Connecting People to Nature is this year’s theme for World Environmental Day.  World Environment Day, celebrated each June 5th, was first designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972.  In 100+ countries, this day is the UN’s signature annual event for encouraging environmental stewardship. From your backyard to your favorite national park, nature is closer than you think. It’s time to get out and enjoy it.  Be a part of a world-wide event and share your photos and videos using #WorldEnvironmentDay or #WithNature.

Rocky Mtns naturewaterfall colorado nature

I frequently spend time outdoors to connect with nature.  A hike along the Chattahoochee River or a walk or swim in my neighborhood brings me closer to nature. My travels take me across this country and the globe –  to all the seven continents.

colorado rocky mtns

The Rocky Mountains: the majesty of nature

Recently, I witnessed the majesty of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  The colonies of aspens, magnificent elk, soaring golden eagles, playful prairie dogs and yes, even snakes, took my breath away.

No matter where my travels take me, I’m always amazed by nature’s grandeur, stunning beauty and the plethora of free environmental services such as clean water and oxygen to soil and pollination.  Today few organizations or individuals directly pay for the environmental services received from nature.  Compounding this free rider status, many of the related externalities (waste) of commerce based on extraction of natural resources are not accounted for on the cost ledger of our organizations. If we don’t start accounting and paying for these environmental services that we all enjoy – how will our quality of life be impacted?  What are the risks to our businesses?  At a minimum, might we all be ignoring an enormous bill that is already past due?

I would argue that the status quo is unsustainable.

As much as 80% of the environmental impact of a brand comes from the activities of our supply chains.  Businesses, NGOs and governments all have opportunities to collaborate with suppliers and partners to protect and preserve the environment.  Here are some questions to consider posing across your supply chain:

  • How can we mimic nature to improve our products and services?
  • Do you collaborate with your key suppliers to measure and set reduction targets against use of energy, water, waste and packaging?
  • What waste streams are generated along each point within your supply chain that should be reduced, eliminated or examined for potential sale or donation to other organizations?
  • Do individual departments set budgets for use of energy, water, office supply use?
  • Does your organization report greenhouse gas related emissions publicly?
  • Are water-related risks or deforestation-related risks publicly reported by your organization?
  • How do you trace the origin of ingredients, raw materials and supplies and manage the quality of your direct suppliers?
  • What benefits do or can your service or product deliver to society?
  • Do your brand managers tour and experience the entire supply chain of your business?
  • What new initiatives should you pursue to help connect with nature as a way to enhance the influence and growth or your brand, while protecting and preserving the environment?

This World Environment Day, I encourage you to take steps to connect your brand, organization and yourself more closely with nature.  If you are not routinely asking questions like those above to your suppliers, my question to you is, what do you have you to lose?

Easy ways to “go green” at the office to celebrate Earth Day

Earth Day is coming up at the end of the month. You’re already trying to be as “green” as you can be at home, so now it’s time to make your workplace just as sustainable.  There are lots of simple changes you can make to raise awareness of environmental issues, create a sustainable workplace, and encourage your co-workers to make and participate in sustainable choices.

Here’s a few ways to make any office Earth Day-ready:

  1. Think Before You Print. Refrain from printing things that can easily be read or saved on the computer. And, if you decide to print, TreeZero encourages you to use our tree free multipurpose paper. We also suggest that you set up your printers to print two-sided, set your margins as wide and your font size as small as possible. Not only will you save paper, but you’ll think twice about what you’re sending out.recycle bins
  2. Recycle Everything You Can. Recycling is one of the easiest, least demanding and least expensive ways to go green. Strategically place recycling bins around the office to encourage people to properly dispose of paper, aluminum, plastic, glass and other items. As your office becomes more involved in the recycling, you can also set up separate bins for items such as batteries and ink cartridges.biking to work
  3. Commute Smarter. Walk or cycle to work if you can.  Take public transportation (tip: buy bulk passes to save money). As a bonus with either of these two options, you’ll get additional exercise on your way to and from work.  If you must drive, carpool or car share.  According to the EPA, ditching your car for two days per week will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 1,600 pounds per year.dog at work
  4. Conserve Water. Keep a pitcher of water in the fridge instead of running the tap. Don’t pour left over water down the drain.  Use it to water the plants.  If you’re lucky enough to be able to bring your dog to the office, use left over water to fill the dog’s water bowl.green team 2
  5. Start a Green Team. Get your office to create a sustainability team. Gather team members from a cross-section of the company and work together to develop and maintain green practices for your company. Keep it fun and encourage company-wide participation rewarding creative ideas.  Your new Green Team can inspire, activate, and engage employees to create meaningful changes within your company.  Otherwise, what’s the use of these tips if no one is using them?

Let us know how you’ve made your office a more sustainable place to work. Share some of your favorite sustainable ideas.  We look forward to celebrating and supporting Earth Day 2017 with all of you!

A Look At Deforestation: Last Year Billions of Trees Fell. Is Anybody Listening?

Deforestation is a huge and complex issue. In a note to US school children in recognition of Arbor Day in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless.”

To put it into perspective, I can’t help but think of several often used and perhaps misconstrued idioms.  “We can’t see the forest for the trees.”  “You are barking up the wrong tree.”  Better yet, “Let me cut to the chase,” as we ponder:

  • How does deforestation impact you personally?
  • Are investments in your retirement fund financing deforestation?
  • How can we educate ourselves on the risks and opportunities related to deforestation?
  • Do you or your organization purchase goods or services that might increase levels of deforestation?
  • Are you measuring the potential risks of deforestation within your supply chain?
  • Does your organization have a plan for mitigating deforestation risks within your supply chain?
  • What positive steps can be taken to protect remaining forests and increase the benefits they deliver?

The Value of Our Forests

Forests are economic juggernauts generating valuable commodities like the paper and lumber we rely on daily.  Trees are cleared to build our communities. They feed us and provide fuel for billions globally. Forests are the source of many break-through ingredients used in medical advancements.

Forests provide all sorts of invaluable environmental services ranging from water filtration and temperature control to clean air and tourism. They are home to over half of the biodiversity and creatures on earth.   If we made a concerted effort to accurately account for the value of these environmental services, it would easily exceed trillions of dollars annually.

The Loss of Our Forests

World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that, 30% of global forest cover has been cleared, another 20% has been degraded.  Most of the rest has been fragmented, leaving only about 15% intact.

Stumps of Fallen Trees

Billions of Trees Have Fallen, Is Anyone Listening?

The UN Climate Summit Report states the conversion of forests for the production of commodities such as soy, palm oil, beef and paper accounts for roughly half of global deforestation. Infrastructure, urban expansion, energy, mining and fuel wood collection also contribute in varying degrees.

Justin Worland reports in an article in Time magazine that “People cut down 15 billion trees each year and the global tree count has fallen by 46% since the beginning of human civilization.”  Deforestation and forest degradation account for anywhere between 10% – 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, deforestation impacts climate change in various ways. The changes include: 1. directly reflecting heat by removing vegetation cover, 2. releasing greenhouses gases through clearing, 3. preventing forests from sequestering more carbon dioxide by cutting them, and 4. the generation of CO2 resulting from the use of bio-fuels.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) are credible and growing responses.  But, I would argue, not nearly enough.  Fortunately, innovative new commitments and guidelines should spur increased measurement and commitment helping to stem the tide of deforestation.

Two Redwood Trees

Redwood Trees Providing Canopy

The respiration of our remaining boreal and rain forests are the lungs that inhale CO2 and breathe out oxygen for most of the creatures on the earth. Chuck Burr, founder of www.restorationseeds.com and the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association estimates that, “when you walk from a modern immature woods into the old growth redwoods, the temperature drops 10 degrees F in the summer, the humidity increases 10 percent and the oxygen increase a few percent.  The bottom line is that the climate benefits of a plantation of 30’ (9m) trees is insignificant compared to a forest of 200’ (61m) old growth trees.”
Plain and simple, forests are invaluable and are in crisis.

It’s Time to Take Action – Saving Our Forests

In 2010 the Board of Directors of the Consumer Goods Forum approved a resolution to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.  The aim is to achieve this through the responsible sourcing of key commodities (soy, palm oil, paper/pulp and beef) so sourcing these commodities will not deplete tropical rainforests.

Dozens of governments, scores of international corporations and more than 50 Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014.  The goal of this non-binding agreement is to reduce forest loss by halve, end it by 2030 and restore forest lands by an area larger than India. Meeting these goals would cut between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tons of carbon annually.

In 2016, institutional investors with $22 trillion in assets requested that companies report data about forest risks through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).  According to the report, Revenue at Risk: Why Addressing Deforestation Is Critical to Business Success, the total annual turnover at risk for publicly listed companies is estimated to be up to $906 billion.

The United Nations has created a mechanism that enables organizations to participate in efforts that can combine carbon reduction and neutrality efforts with programs that incentivize people and communities to engage in activities that preserve and expand forest canopies.  Better known as REDDReducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries  this methodology was launched in 2008.

TreeZero & 100% tree free, carbon neutral copy paper

At TreeZero, our copy paper is 100% tree free and carbon neutral.  TreeZero recently partnered with the environmental group Wildlife Works to participate in their REDD projects in Africa.  The Wildlife Works projects have been successfully third-party validated and verified against the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) methodology, and the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standard (CCB) at the GOLD level.  Two-thirds of the funds dedicated to TreeZero’s carbon neutrality efforts go to local communities in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to provide incentives to stop deforestation.

TreeZero is a proud to partner of Wildlife Works and we hope that our customers and consumers find our commitment to the environment of value to their businesses and their sustainability strategies.

Conclusion

If we don’t measure forest related impacts and risks to our organizations and nature – how can we expect to manage and minimize these risks? If we don’t manage them, they are likely to end-up managing us. “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem.  Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”  Theodore Roosevelt, October 1907.