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New lessons in innovation are vital to driving sustainability Davide Stronati

Manufacturer Interface employs 3500 people and makes carpet tiles. Mott MacDonald employs 16,000 people and delivers multidisciplinary engineering, management and development services. We’re chalk and cheese. Yet, when it comes to sustainability, there’s a lot we can learn from what Interface has achieved over the last 20 years.

The Interface experience proves the message in our sustainability manifesto for the global Group: sustainability unleashes innovation and innovation enables sustainability. This relationship offers a major opportunity to develop new skills, advance our thinking and grow our business.

Mott MacDonald hosts an annual Sustainability Forum to discuss all aspects of our work in this area. Our guest speaker this year was Interface’s Kelly Grainger. He outlined how over the last 20 years, the company has worked to meet its founder’s vision of achieving zero impact on the environment by 2020. Their efforts have resulted in remarkable successes in environmental, economic and social sustainability.

A new mission

Ray Anderson established Interface in 1974. The company pursued a ‘compliant and legal’ approach to sustainability for its first 20 years until 1994 when, after reading Paul Hawken’s landmark book ‘The Ecology of Commerce’, Ray launched Mission Zero. This initiative pledged Interface to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 and, as a result, fundamentally changed the company’s business model and philosophy.

In January, Interface celebrated achieving two of its zero-based targets and reducing water to an absolute minimum at its manufacturing plant in The Netherlands. As a result, the company’s European operations are now using around 90% less absolute carbon and 95% less water, with no waste going to landfill.

Vital innovation

Mission Zero is not simply about reducing Interface’s direct impacts, it’s also about taking full responsibility for the entire lifecycle of its products. It was a business dependent on oil: both the nylon fibre and bitumen backing of their carpets tiles were manufactured using it. The company has had to motivate its suppliers to develop new sources of yarn and new production processes to reduce its reliance on petrochemicals.

Early ‘easy wins’ were recognised and secured, but these straightforward opportunities soon dried up and ongoing achievements in sustainability required exceptional innovation. This has been driven by Mission Zero, which has unified staff at Interface and enabled them to see themselves as ‘agents of change’ who drive continual innovation from within. As a result, 44% of the raw materials used by Interface in Europe are now recycled or bio-based.

The inventors of nylon had claimed it was impossible to recycle. However, in 2011 Interface launched its first carpet tile made from 100% recycled nylon using the ReEntry 2.0 ‘closed loop’ recycling process, which marked a breakthrough for the carpet industry. The process uses advanced technology to separate the main components. The purity of the separated raw material allows recycling of yarn into yarn and backing into backing.

Interface is also now using bio-based nylon made from the oil of the castor bean plant to produce carpet fibres. The castor beans are rapidly renewable and, unlike many other crops used for bio-based materials, the plants don’t compete with food crops as they can thrive on land unsuitable for other uses. They also only need to be watered every 20-25 days. The farmers in India and South America who grow the beans often see revenues of over ten times what it costs to start the crop.

A recent initiative in the Philippines has seen Interface team up with the Zoological Society of London to develop a way of tackling the problem of discarded fishing nets while also helping to combat poverty. The partnership, known as Net-Works, is based on the fact that the nylon in fishing nets is the same material used to make carpet yarn. Net-Works is developing a community-based supply chain for discarded nylon nets that can deliver much of the nylon needed for recycling into Interface products while also generating supplementary income for fishermen who sell their old nets.

Enhanced vision

Today, Interface Europe is saving €7.6 million and reducing emissions by 13,800tCO2e every year as a result of Mission Zero. The benefit it has gained in terms of enhanced reputation is incalculable, but it enables the company to state with complete confidence: “We don’t do sustainability to sell more; we sell more because we do sustainability.”

Mission Zero demonstrates how sustainability offers a new lens through which to focus on challenges when conventional thinking has been exhausted. It reveals previously unseen possibilities that can deliver ingenious new solutions. And, as Interface has demonstrated, it’s the ingenuity of staff that is the keystone of this strategy.

Words to the wise

Mott MacDonald is by no means a novice when it comes to initiating, driving and championing sustainability. But you can always teach an old dog new tricks, and Interface has shown how continual improvement is possible within even a relatively narrow sector. This was also demonstrated by the winner of Mott MacDonald’s 2014 Milne Award for Innovation.

Our materials team in Altrincham, UK, developed a carbon fibre reinforced geopolymer mortar for the repair and cathodic protection of masonry-clad steel framed structures. These proliferated all over the world from the 1880s through to the 1940s, and it was the construction method of choice for the great civic and commercial buildings of that period, many of which are now heritage structures.

Our novel geopolymer mortar is made from recycled blast furnace slag and recycled offcuts of carbon fibre from the aviation and motor industries, making it a prime example of upcycling – using waste material to produce something of equal or superior quality. It’s also substantially less expensive, more environmentally sustainable and simpler to install than the mixed metal oxide coated titanium anodes traditionally used to provide cathodic protection against corrosion. Unlike conventional discrete anode cathodic protection systems, no drilling is required to install it. The mortar is conductive so, once it has been gunned into the masonry joints and a DC current is induced, it acts as an anode

This is just one example among many that shows how Mott MacDonald staff apply their ingenuity to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to problems that need solving. Doing this will enable us to also claim: we don’t do sustainability to sell more; we sell more because of sustainability.

It’s an ethos to aim for.

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