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Interface Moving from Net Zero to Climate Positive by Rethinking Factories as Forests

Erin Meezan, VP and Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface, and Nicole Hagerman Miller, Managing Director of Biomimicry 3.8, on the main stage at SB'18 Vancouver. | Image credit: Talia Arbit

With 3.8 billion years of R&D behind Earth’s systems and creatures, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can learn and how we can apply those lessons to our companies, products and processes. At SB’18 Vancouver, in a world-first and SB exclusive, Biomimicry 3.8 and Interface shared how they’ve begun reimagining the company’s factories as forests to turn them into high-efficiency, net-positive facilities — and how you can start, too.

Erin Meezan, VP and Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface, and Nicole Hagerman Miller, Managing Director of Biomimicry 3.8, introduced their concept in an evening plenary and went into more detail during a breakout session the following morning. After two years of exploration, they were excited to introduce the Factory as a Forest methodology they’ve been working on to transform facilities from ‘zero footprint’ to provide the same benefits as high-performing ecosystems.

They see becoming restorative or climate positive as a natural progression; the next logical step in the sustainability journey for leading firms. Meezan simplified the logic behind this: when Ray Anderson declared Interface was committed to becoming the world’s first environmentally sustainable company in 1994, smokestacks, the take-make-waste linear economy, petroleum-intensive products and disconnected supply chains were the norm. Since then, the company has been striving to get their factories to ‘zero’ impact, use recycled and closed loop materials, develop low carbon products, and make their supply chains sustainable. (Most recently through its Climate Take Back sustainability strategy and by making all of its flooring products carbon neutral.) Beyond 2020, Interface is looking to make its factories function more like forests, use dispersed materials, develop products that sequester carbon, and establish supply chains that “benefit all life.”

“20 years after envisioning becoming a sustainable company, we finally have the data to figure out how to really achieve that,” Meezan said. “This is about taking that next step towards positive and acting more like an ecosystem.”

Factory as a Forest has been designed to complement companies’ existing strategy, whether as a project alongside existing initiatives or as a vehicle to help achieve goals such as net positive buildings or contributing to the SDGs.

It can be boiled down to a four-step process: 1) Identify a local reference ecosystem; 2) Quantify the performance; 3) Create design strategies; and 4) Implement design recommendations. Erin Rovalo, Senior Principal at Biomimicry 3.8, unpacked each of these steps in the breakout session, while Meezan provided insight on their implementation from her pilot project at Interface.

1. Identify a local reference ecosystem

“When the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we’ve reached sustainability.”
- Janine Benyus, Co-Founder of Biomimicry 3.8

Ecosystem services – the benefits such as food and waste assimilation that people obtain from ecosystems –  can vary from place to place. Since they function differently, Biomimicry 3.8 recommends figuring out which eco-region a facility belongs to and identifying a nearby ecosystem to mimic.

One way to do this is by using Resolve’s Ecoregions 2017 interactive map, which allows you to zoom into locations on a world map to find out what their ecoregion is and which others are nearby. For example, Vancouver is located in a temperate conifer forest biome, but more specifically, it is in the Puget lowland forests ecoregion and adjacent to the British Columbia coastal conifer forests ecoregion.

With this information, you can start to dig into some specifics. What are the ecosystem services provided by local, healthy ecosystems near your site? Vital ecosystem services include carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, air filtration, water storage and biodiversity support, to name a few. Rovalo recommended the Ecology Pocket Guide as a helpful design tool for non-biologists.

Rovalo also recommended taking your team for a walk in the ecosystem you want your facility to reflect. “It’s amazing the ecological literacy non-scientists can develop when they’re immersed,” she said, noting that a nature walk can help ground ecosystem thinking. Experiencing the environment you want to replicate can help overcome barriers and serve as a common thread for different stakeholders to discuss and come together around.

2. Quantify ecosystem and site performance

Once you’re familiar with your ecosystem muse, you can start to measure its Ecosystem Performance Standards (EPS) and setting goals and performance benchmarks for your site around ecosystem services such as water storage and purification, pollution detoxification, soil fertility enhancement or supporting pollinators.

Meezan noted the importance of narrowing down your focus to what is manageable and what fits with your company’s operations and strategy. For Interface, this lead to more focus on issues such as carbon and water which are core to their strategy. The exercise can also lead to new considerations; Meezan explained that Interface had never asked about soil health despite that they could influence that at their facilities. After you’ve identified gaps, consider what your company can influence.

From there you can identify and decide on specific metrics. For example, if you’re looking at a local ecosystem’s water runoff, consider how your facility could match that of the ecosystem. Your facility’s current performance would act as the baseline and your target would be to match the ecosystem.

3) Create design strategies

Continue keeping your local ecoregion in mind while developing design strategies to reach your goals. Where the site is will help determine what will be effective. For example, the effectiveness of rainwater collection will be much different in Arizona compared to Thailand.

“This offers a really interesting way to connect with employees in a very local way,” Meezan said, adding that Interface engineers originally wanted to simply replicate designs from the pilot project to the company’s other sites around the world. Biomimicry 3.8 made many of the design recommendations for their pilot site.

At this stage it is not necessary to map out everything you will do to match the services you’ve chosen to match from your reference ecosystem. As Meezan noted, closing the performance gap takes time!

4) Implement design recommendations

Finally, it is time to implement! Meezan sold the approach internally as a pilot program with these four simple steps and encouraged the audience to take advantage of this seemingly simple and manageable way to adopt and deliver on an ambitious vision with 10-20 year aspirational goals. The Factory as a Forest approach also allowed Meezan’s team to do short-term, mid-term and long-term planning to make the facility a positive contributor to its community.

Meezan said scaling such an approach is one of its biggest challenges, not only because of its place-based nature, but also because metrics for ecosystem services and parallel facility metrics remain imperfect. However, she is optimistic that Interface will still have a significant positive impact at the local level. While a multi-national company may not have very much transferable knowledge from one of its facilities to the next, neighboring facilities could benefit. Meezan is considering partnering with other manufacturers near Interface’s pilot factory to help reduce the community’s impacts.

Miller concluded the breakout by inviting interested companies “to help navigate this from a pilot into a larger movement” by reaching out to Biomimicry 3.8.


Hannah Furlong is an Editorial Assistant for Sustainable Brands, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]


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