Sustainability Gives Businesses a Competitive Edge

Speaker Says 'Going Green' is No Longer Just for 'Tree Huggers'

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Jim Hartzfeld is managing director of InterfaceRAISE, a sustainability consulting subsidiary of Interface, Inc., a global producer of commercial and institutional interiors.

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Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 12:22 pm | Updated: 1:29 pm, Thu May 8, 2014.

While consumers might be hearing fewer companies bragging about their sustainability practices, Jim Hartzfeld says that's only because they're keeping their competitive edge closer to the vest. What used to be little more than a public relations gimmick is rapidly becoming a difference maker to the bottom lines of many companies.

"This idea of sustainability is actually an amazing driver of competitive innovation and profitability," Hartzfeld told an audience of business and municipal professionals at a luncheon Monday in Dubuque, Iowa.

Hartzfeld, a past chairman and board member of the U.S. Green Building Council, is a managing director at InterfaceRAISE, LLC, the sustainability consulting service of Interface, Inc., a global supplier of commercial and institutional interiors.

Hartzfeld is a self-described "recovering chemical engineer" with an MBA who became a "tree hugger" when he joined Interface in 1994. Yet, he said, he remains "an avid and enthusiastic capitalist."

"So how in the world can all of that go together? I think that's really what my talk is about," he said. "The reason that's important is because we have massive changes we have to make to our whole industrial system, and there's no government that I know of that can guide that scale of change. It's business and industry that has the innovation, competency and talent to really drive and make these big-time changes. And, the only way to really accelerate that is to use the power of competitive markets."

Hartzfeld said competitive advantages have been at the heart of Interface's approach to sustainability since the mid 1990s.

"Yes, it is an altruistic, philanthropic exercise, but even more so, it's an entrepreneurial, competitive exercise," he said.

Interface is the world's largest maker of carpet tiles - a multi-billion dollar company with manufacturing plants on five continents. The vision statement on its web site makes sustainability its all-encompassing objective:

"To be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: People, process, product, place and profits - by 2020 - and in doing so we will become restorative through the power of influence."

Hartzfeld said Interface aspires to be a "zero waste" company by 2020 and has developed a series of metrics to measure its progress toward that goal. Since 1996, the company has already reduced the amount of carpet manufacturing waste it sends to landfills by 77 percent, its energy consumption by 43 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 44 percent (94 percent when factoring in offsets), even as the company's carpet sales have grown by 27 percent.

Hartzfeld identified seven important fronts on which Interface approaches sustainability:

1) Eliminate Waste. This is done not only by recycling scrap materials, but by redesigning products and processes to reduce and simplify the amount of resources used in the manufacturing of goods.

2) Benign Emissions. Interface does this by eliminating toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities.

3) Renewable Energy. Hartzfeld said Interface plans to be completely off the power grid by 2020, using only renewable fuels and electricity to operate its manufacturing, sales and office facilities.

4) Recycling. Interface is redesigning its processes and products to recycle synthetic materials and convert its waste into valuable raw materials. The company is using recovered and bio-based materials in its products and keeping organic materials uncontaminated so they can be returned to their natural systems. Hartzfeld made a case for legalizing industrial hemp, a plant related to marijuana but without the mind-altering chemical THC. He said widespread use of the strong natural fibers in hemp would make textile manufacturing less reliant on petroleum based materials.

5) Resource-Efficient Transportation. Hartzfeld said his company is building more manufacturing facilities around the world to reduce the distances traveled in the transportation of materials and the distribution of products. All products sold in the United States were manufactured here, and no products are exported overseas, he said.

6) Sensitizing Stakeholders. By engaging everyone associated with the company - employees, suppliers, customers, etc. - Hartzfeld said a company can make a significant impact on the entire community. Including stakeholders in the visioning and planning process gets everyone thinking about sustainability, which fosters ideas and innovations, he said. As an example, Hartzfeld credited Interface's emphasis on sustainability for inspiring a designer to develop a line of carpeting in which every square is unique.

"He noticed that, in nature, there were no repeated forms or colors that were exactly identical. That concept spawned a whole new manufacturing process that has generated one of our most successful product lines," Hartzfeld said.

7) Redesign Commerce. Sustainability-based commerce means changing purchasing practices to create market-based incentives for sustainability, Hartzfeld said. He said Walmart and General Electric are two companies that, like Interface, are driving sustainability in their respective markets.

"They're doing some amazing things, but they're not doing it to be philanthropic. They saw the raw business advantage of doing this," Hartzfeld said.

He identified five ways a business can benefit from making sustainability a priority: Enhanced brand and reputation; cost savings for fuel, energy and materials; attracting top talent, who want to be associated with "green" businesses; increased productivity; and inspiring creativity and innovation.

Hartzfeld said as more businesses begin to see sustainability as more than reducing environmental impact and compliance risk, the public will hear less about it in the media.

"Yes, it's important to be philanthropic and give back to your community," he said. "But this is not just about philanthropy. This is about being more competitive and vibrant and growing your business."

Hartzfeld was keynote speaker at a luncheon entitled "How to Go Green without Going Red," hosted jointly by the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. It was sponsored by Premier Bank of Dubuque.

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