If I asked you to name a manufacturer who is a shining beacon of purpose-led business, sustainability and a leading light in regenerative business, social enterprise and also a proponent of biomimicry – what would you be likely to say? You might name IKEA, or Seventh Generation or if you were very manufacturing aware you might say Samsung, Siemens or even Adidas. But would you say carpet tiles? Those things of the 70s that inhabit grotty offices and cheap properties? I may be showing my age here, but if you’re like me you are in for a very pleasant surprise! Because last week I discovered Interface – not only a manufacturer of fairly cool, trendy looking flooring but one of the most innovative entrepreneurial businesses I’ve come across this year.
What has earned that effusive accolade? Let me enlighten you. This is a company that recognises something I believe in deeply. That business has a responsibility to play a part in tackling the grand challenges of humanity. This is a company that was prepared to ask the almost unimaginable and find a way to respond. It takes vision and leadership to go to this kind of place, but more than anything it needs an established culture that values innovation, cutting-edge approaches and is capable of managing risk. So what were the questions.
Asking the big question: how can we play a part in alleviating world poverty?
Here is an organisation that on the surface is another business-to-business manufacturer. OK – somewhat more glamorous forms of carpet tiling than you might imagine. Wavy sea-surface like designs that would brighten up even a cool, trendy advertising office. So there’s a culture of good design and innovation. But there’s something more interesting here.
How many companies do you know that are prepared to ask themselves really big questions like this one……. How can a carpet manufacturer play a part in alleviating poverty? OR If nature designed an industrial process, what would it look like?
One of the answers is Net-Works – a community-based project in conjunction with ZSL for collecting discarded fishing nets polluting the environment in the Philippines. Not only has this forward-thinking project helped clean up the threatened marine environment, it has also helped to create a social bank in local villages where local people can borrow money for entrepreneurial investments and education of their children. I think Interface tells the story rather well itself…..
Asking the big question: what would a product designed by nature look like?
When it comes to it’s relationship with nature, Interface is also a pioneer in biophilic design. What does that mean? Probably sounds a bit rude! It’s about the relationship between built design and our wellbeing and health; it’s about integrating the best of nature into office and home design to improve productivity, happiness and creativity. What could be more connected in business than an approach which integrates people, nature and business – it’s a living example of everything I believe is important. Again, Interface probably tells is best:-
What can we learn from Interface?
- Any organisation can ask big questions and engage with the grand challenges of humanity – poverty, climate change, education, health, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, injustice, inequality – if you really want to participate as a business in the future challenges of the planet, it is completely possible
- Nature as the world’s most intelligent system can offer us surprising insights if we are prepared to investigate the possibilities of biomimicry
- If you are open to the unexpected, surprising partnerships can yield astonishing results – a carpet tile manufacturer using high amounts of plastic is an unlikely partner for and environmental conservation organisation like ZSL but together they have been able to achieve something extraordinary
- You have to look at your supply chain – where is there an opportunity for a surprising partnership? Where else are the components you use causing environmental or human harm? Is this an opportunity for action? This is probably the most significant piece of learning. The gems of future possibility can be hidden in your supply chain and offer a real opportunity to embed purpose throughout the business rather than paint it on the outside.
- Innovation requires creative and visionary leadership. It’s not the heroic leader style we have been used to in high-profile business entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, but a deep seated commitment to purposeful business, and the courage to believe that profit comes with purpose.