Erin Meezan - Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface

Erin Meezan - Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface

Erin gives voice to Interface’s conscience, ensuring that strategy and goals are in sync with its aggressive sustainability vision established more than 20 years ago. Today, Interface has evolved its thinking to go beyond doing less harm to creating positive impacts, not just for Interface and the flooring industry, but for the world at large.

Erin led the company to unveil a new mission in 2016 – Climate Take Back, tackling the single biggest threat facing humanity: global climate change. This mission is focused on creating a path for Interface and others to reverse global warming, not just reduce carbon emissions.

As CSO, Erin leads a global team that provides technical assistance and support to this audacious goal and the company’s global business, addressing sustainability at all levels – from operations and management, to employees and customers, and in policy forums. Erin and her team also develop industry-leading approaches to measurement, driving transparency and innovation in the field of sustainability, while also capturing successes as the company nears its Mission Zero targets in 2020.

Erin Joins Sustainable Nation to Discuss:

  • Interface's Climate Take Back program and aligning corporate sustainability programs with what the world needs

  • What stakeholders are expecting from a 20-plus year leader in sustainability

  • Net Positive and moving beyond traditional corporate sustainability and CSR

  • Advice and recommendations for sustainability leaders

Highlights:

How are expectations shifting for what it means to be a company leading in sustainability?

In a good way, I think a lot of our stakeholders are expecting, not just Interface but other companies, to raise their level of ambition. I think it comes on 25 years of dialogue about what sustainable business is, reducing impact, companies making incremental steps and some really good progress, but then the rest of us observing that the planet isn't really in a much better place. So, we're hearing, whether it's potential employees, current employees or customers, that ambitions need to be higher and that there's an expectation that companies should be solving larger sustainability challenges than just their own. A great place to see this playing out is in the Globe Scan Sustainability Leaders Survey that gets published annually. It asks people in universities, people in business, people in NGO organizations what they expect of businesses.

You can see that the expectation is getting higher in terms of businesses having more aggressive approaches, but we also see that anecdotally. We had a new CEO come to Interface in 2016 and one of the first things we did was have a conversation with him about not just where we were on achieving the goals Ray Anderson set 25 years ago, but also our future ambition. We surveyed all of our employees at Interface, and even that exercise let us know that our own employees within the business had much bigger ambitions for where Interface needed to go. So, building on that, we've been able to really accelerate our ambition and in 2017 issue a new challenge and a new mission for the business. But I think it's something every business needs to be looking at. What is our current approach to sustainability? What are we really trying to solve and isn't ambitious enough?

It's great that we are starting to see movement from leaders like yourselves where incremental reductions in energy, water and emissions just aren't enough anymore. We need to do more. More companies are using those words like "positive," "carbon positive," "regenerative" and actually using business as a force for good, as the B Corp world would say. So, what does this mean for your business and new approaches within Interface?

I think what it really meant for us, first, was setting a bold next step. Really putting out the next mission for the company and getting away from the traditional CSR or sustainable business language of just framing that mission within the context of your business. So, not just saying that Interface wants to be carbon neutral, which by the way we achieved in 2018 for all of the products in the whole business, but actually framing the mission in terms of the problem we wanted to solve. In 2016, Interface publicly said the next mission for Interface and the business is reversing global warming. We wanted to get out of that whole language of CSR commitments, incremental change and carbon neutral business. We wanted to align the mission of our business with the problem that needs to get solved in the world.

I think it's a really important shift in language and in thinking. So we said that in 2016, the next step in sustainability is reversing global warming. We call it the Climate Take Back and we're going to get the business really focused on how we do this. Obviously, the first question that comes after that is, "How's a 5,000 person, billion dollar business actually going to reverse global warming?" I think the answer is, we're going to do what we can do in our business to sequester more carbon than we emit and to make products that do the same whether they end up getting called carbon negative or carbon positive or climate positive or any of the new labels out there. The ambition will be to first do it in our business. This is a huge global challenge.

So, what else do we need to do as part of that business strategy to achieve the mission of reversing global warming? We have to double down on engaging every one of our employees to do something in their personal lives. The third part of it is we have to influence everyone else, not just our supply chain, not just our immediate customer base, but we really have to influence other companies to raise their level of ambition and shift their corporate targets from a reduction, or net zero, to reversing global warming. So, if we really want to live into this kind of bold commitment we've made for ourselves, this shift to positive, it actually means doing a lot more to influence other companies. I think that's one of the big lessons. In the last 20 years, sustainability has been focused on businesses just reducing the impacts of their immediate operations and their supply chains, right? But how many of us have really deeply invested in saying we want every employee to start taking real action at home? Or, we want every single customer we interact with to have a deeper understanding of what they can do to reverse global warming. So, it's a huge ambition that we've put on ourselves, but I think directionally, it's where not just Interface needs to go, but the rest of the business world does as well.

What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

Think about developing your skills as being an advocate. I think a lot of people think about getting a science background or getting a business background, and I have found over my like 15 plus year career in sustainable business, that you end up becoming the biggest advocate for sustainability in your business. So, the ability to make effective arguments, having a communication style that's pretty clear and direct and being able to find a way to harness your passion in a way that persuades senior leaders in the business, customers and other people in the business to really follow you, is really important. So, think about what it is that you can do to develop yourself into a really effective advocate.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

I'm super excited to see how companies are applying this idea of net positive and whether it's pilot projects like our Networks Project, whether it's work that Unilever is doing, there's just some really exciting examples of how businesses are raising their level of ambition and trying it out through really innovative partnerships that are having amazing impacts in the world.

What is one book you'd recommend sustainability leaders read?

There's so many. I think one of my favorite books is Ishmael, which was written by Daniel Quinn. It's not a new book. It's been out for at least 25 years. It's a really good one about resetting your mindset about how we think about business and the natural world as being quite separate, or even how we think about humans and the natural world as being quite separate. It's a really good read.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in your work?

Some days I wished that I had had the benefit of being able to go through some of the really cool programs that exist right now for people to develop degrees or areas of focus in sustainable business. So for example, Arizona State University has some amazing programs now for undergraduates to get degrees in sustainability. There are also really great emerging MBA programs. The University of Vermont has a really innovative program that I serve on the advisory board of that's called SIMBA and it's a sustainable intra-preneurship MBA. I secretly wish that I were of the age now where I could participate in that because I think those are some of the best tools around. In terms of tools or how do to get the best, most energizing sense of where we're going, I do attend business conferences like Sustainable Brands and gatherings like that because I find that that's a really great place to stay connected to what's emerging and what's happening. One other thing we do here at Interface is we maintain this environmental advisory board that we internally call the Eco Dream Team. Outside, we call it our environmental advisory board. Spending time with those people like Paul Hawkin and Janine Benyus is incredibly valuable. They are kind of a continual source of innovative ideas and inspiration. If you don't have an eco advisory board, finding ways to interact with some of these leading lights in the movement and finding a way to interact with those guys is always a great way to kind of get inspired and be challenged and think about what's beyond your immediate focus.

Where can people go to learn more about you and the work being done at Interface?

They can go to the Interface website: www.Interface.com. You can read all about Climate Take Back and what we're doing to achieve that mission.