Twenty years ago, Interface’s founder, the late Ray Anderson, committed his carpet tile company to strive for sustainability. We ask Rob Boogaard, its current EMEA chief executive, about the role innovation plays in realising Anderson’s vision

Ethical Corporation: Business leaders frequently talk about the value of innovation. Is it a term you use a lot at Interface?

Rob Boogaard: Yes, very much so. As a carpet tile manufacturer, we are first and foremost a design company. Our core business is about creating inspiring environments. We work with architects and designers across the world on prestigious office, hotel and educational facilities. The one thing that points all our noses in the same direction is our “Mission Zero” programme. This puts into practice our vision not to harm the environment any more in 2020 and even to become restorative. Innovation is the third strategic pillar of our company. It’s the thing that helps us achieve our design and sustainability goals; it kind of ties everything together.

Ethical Corporation: How is the company’s commitment to innovation organised internally?

Rob Boogaard: We have a dedicated innovation team, whose focus is to cultivate and exploit our internal innovation capability. They create a larger team within our R&D divisions globally. Altogether they number around 80 people. The innovation team also makes linkages to the outside world where a lot of the answers we need can be found.

Ethical Corporation: How do you instil an innovation mindset across all employees, not just those in the formal innovation team?

Rob Boogaard: It’s a long process. The key thing is to have common goals that bind everyone together. To support our 2020 goal, we’ve developed Quest [quality utilising employee suggestions and teamwork], a programme to drive waste reduction efforts at our factories. For all employees in Europe, we also have FastForward 2020 training. Each new employee has to go through a “Level 1” stage, which teaches them the basics about Mission Zero. Levels 2 and 3 are voluntary. But people that have passed Level 3 have the opportunity to work on a real, practical case in the company. They can then graduate to become a Mission Zero ambassador. In Europe, we have around 80 ambassadors, which is quite a high percentage of our total workforce [of around 900] in the region.
When it comes to engaging employees, it’s also really important to show how innovation drives results. When you do that, people see for themselves what sustainability is all about and the benefits we gain from new ways of doing things. In fact, when our employees don’t hear about progress for a while, a concern begins to creep into the organisation. They say something like “it feels as if we’re on a plateau. Are we going to make it to 2020?” I think that’s a very good sign of the expectations they have of our sustainability programme.

Ethical Corporation: Does your innovation strategy involve Interface engaging supplier and other external organisations as well?

Rob Boogaard: Yes, definitely. Some projects are so high-tech and so particular in know-how that there’s no way we could have come up with it ourselves. So, yes, we constantly look outside of the business. When you do that, you end up tapping into whole new areas of expertise. As a result, we employ a number of technologies that have never been used in the carpet industry before.

Ethical Corporation: How do you manage these innovation relationships with external partners?

Rob Boogaard: It all depends. Sometimes when we have an innovation need, we might just post it on a website. We’ll write, “We’re looking to replace these virgin materials with a renewable or recycled material with X and Y properties”, for example. At other times, we might work with a consultant to identify technologies or to search for alternative materials on our behalf.
We also create associations with organisations that at first glance don’t relate at all to our business. For instance, we have an Experience Centre in Scherpenzeel, in the Netherlands, where we host people who want to see what we are doing. We recently opened that up for various companies, government agencies and university experts working in what’s known here as Food Valley [a food research cluster centred around the Dutch city of Wageningen]. You may well ask why we’d host a group like this. From our perspective, though, we’re looking to replace virgin material for recycled material, so their waste could very well become our new materials. Some of our solutions come from very strange sources.

Ethical Corporation: Could you give an example of an innovation that has really excited you recently?

Rob Boogaard: In 2013 we launched a new technique, which I think is pretty exciting. We use a gas-powered dryer when applying water-based latex suspension on the backs of carpet rolls. That obviously involves a lot of energy consumption. Our engineers worked with our existing machine suppliers on a solution that was going to improve energy efficiency by 20%. At first glance, that sounds great. But we wanted a machine that would have twice the output, while at the same time delivering 50% energy reductions. That is when you need to reach out to other know-how and technologies.
We ended up developing a drying machine with a Swiss technology company that uses an innovative airflow and moisture management system to improve heat transfer and energy efficiency. It hits our reduction target, which means we can run it exclusively on biogas now. Had we gone for that lower 20% reduction level, our remaining gas requirement would have been too high for us to consider paying the premium for biogas.

Ethical Corporation: Producing only “benign emissions” is one of your 2020 Mission Zero targets. Can you describe an innovation that is helping achieve that goal?

Rob Boogaard: Our Net-Works programme is a great example. As a company, our goal is to cut the umbilical cord with oil altogether. The first step we took was to reduce the amount of oil-based material in our products without losing quality and so on. The second was to ask if we could start recycling our products. We put millions of square metres of carpet down all around the world every year. Can we bring that back? So we’ve invested in an innovative technology that allows us to separate the yarn from the backing, so both can be re-used.
But of course it is difficult to get 100% [of our products] back. And if you’re a growing company, you have to find additional flows of materials. That’s when we struck on the idea of recycling discarded fishing nets from beaches, besides the commercial fishing nets we were already using for new yarn, which are made from high-performance nylon also. The idea came from an employee who was visiting the Philippines and saw that the coastline of the fishing islands there was totally littered with discarded old fishing nets. She asked herself: “Can’t we come up with a programme where the local population collect these fishing nets, bundle them up and receive payment for them?”
And that’s exactly what we did. Working with our yarn supplier Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London, we launched a net recycling programme. That was over a year ago now. The nets are sent to Slovenia where Aquafil recycles them at its plant and produces 100% recycled yarn. It’s a unique business model because we’re effectively sending supply materials to our own supplier. The programme is already self-funding and we’re now expanding it to two or three other areas.

Ethical Corporation: What do you think is the biggest barrier to companies being more innovative when it comes to sustainability?

Rob Boogaard: What most companies are still struggling with today, I think, is that they wait for a perfect business case that completely adds up at the end of the day. They are trapped in the mindset of, “What’s the business case? What should our competitive position be?” My experience at Interface is that we have a general idea at first, but it doesn’t always add up perfectly right away.
That’s when conviction comes into play. As an executive team, sometimes you just have to say, “This is the right thing to do. We ought to be doing this.” And I say that as the head of a listed company with shareholders to satisfy. What we have learned over the years is that once you take these steps, then the business case often becomes clear. At Interface, our commitment to sustainability started out as a conviction that it’s the right thing to do: that there is a better way of running a business.


Rob Boogaard is acting president and chief executive for Interface in Europe, Middle East and Africa. He also serves as senior vice-president of sales and marketing. He joined the company in 2011 after three years as global strategy and marketing director at water technology firm Pentair X-Flow (formerly Norit X-Flow). 


Company profile:  Interface Europe
Industry:  Modular carpet manufacturer
Global headquarters:  Atlanta, Georgia
Europe headquarters:  Scherpenzeel, Holland
Manufacturing facilities:  Craigavon in Northern Ireland and Scherpenzeel in Holland
Employees:  3,500 globally, of which 900 are in Europe

Mission Zero progress

  • GHG emissions: 1,550 tonnes (2014), a reduction of 90% on 1996 levels
  • Landfill waste: zero
  • Water consumption: reduced by 95% since 1996


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