How a carpet company is helping cyclone-hit fishermen in the Philippines

(First published in Fortune India, October 2013 issue; media added for this blog)

If you’re a leading multinational, and the largest in your business, you can choose worse neighbourhoods to call home than Atlanta, Georgia. The city is a magnet for Fortune 500 regulars such as Coca-Cola, The Home Depot, Delta Airlines, and UPS. But with global revenues of $1.1 billion (Rs 6,871 crore), Interface, the world’s largest maker of ‘soft-surfaced modular floorcoverings’, has nothing in common with these behemoths, except that it’s based in the same city.

Under Ray Anderson, the company’s late founder, Interface strove to recoup what it lacked in size and glamour through its commitment to sustainability—way before the term became a cliché. In 1994, Anderson, now an icon of the ‘people, planet, and profits’ paradigm, recast a business traditionally dependent on unsustainable raw materials into one that aims to be carbon neutral by 2020. Today, the company’s unconventionally engineered products are sold in over 100 countries, establishing it as a case study on conscious capitalism. And while a place in the Fortune 500 remains some way off, it has been on Fortune’s list of America’s most admired companies.

Rob Coombs, who leads the company in the Asia-Pacific, spoke about Interface’s journey in India. Edited excerpts:

How does India fit in with Interface’s philosophy?

At the heart of Interface is a company trying to live in the right way—which is ethically and morally sound—and yet makes a profit. I think the struggle that we have to undergo to achieve that balance is something India is familiar with.

How has the Indian market evolved since you first came here?

We have been in India for only 12 years, but it’s already our third-largest market in the Asia-Pacific, after Australia and China. Indian customers are among the most demanding in the world. In the past, most of our business here focussed on multinationals, but now there’s a lot more demand from local customers. At around $40 million, the Indian market is relatively small, but as companies invest more in the work environment, it will expand.

What’s the key to winning in a developing market?

Thinking long term, and not dumbing down your offerings.

On the face of it, synthetic carpets do not go with sustainability. What are the challenges in following your vision?

[The biggest challenge is] to look out for resources that make social and environmental sense. For example, one of our breakthroughs is using castor bean as a raw material. Castor bean plants grow in arid climates and in sandy soil, where other crops struggle, giving farmers extra income. [Almost 70% of the world’s castor bean plants grow in India.] Also, unlike other biomaterial-oriented crops, castor bean plants do not compete with food crops. However, the difficulty with such resources is that the costs are still very high. The box for innovation is extremely tight because every idea has to make sense environmentally as well as economically.

What is the latest innovation you’re bringing to India?

A new line called Net Effects, made from recycled fishing nets. Globally 650,000 tonnes of discarded nets are dumped into the ocean, causing environmental hazards and threatening marine life. Interface collects used nets and converts them into carpets, also giving fisherfolk an additional income source. We currently source nets from coastal Philippines, an area hit by the recent cyclone [Haiyan]. Hopefully our partnership will help local communities there trying to get back on their feet.

Do you think Indian customers will pay for such stories?

Recently, we met an Indian multinational, and the first thing they asked for was our sustainability scorecard vis-à-vis our biggest competitor. So I am sure that our message will hit the right buttons here. Also, given India’s long coastline, we are planning to start sourcing used fishing nets from here.

With sustainability becoming an overused term, how do you keep yourself motivated?

I often say that if you go to a university graduation ceremony, you won’t find too many people who think, “Hey, I want to work for a carpet company.” They are probably thinking Infosys or KPMG. What have we got? Well, we have got our stories and our vision. Over the years, these have helped us find a bunch of wonderfully engaged people all over the world. That’s our biggest motivation.



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