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The Softer Side of Sustainability

March 8, 2010

the_softer_sideOne reason I like to host seminars at the Center for Ecoliteracy is that you never know who is going to show up.

Last August, one of the 80 people who participated in our Short Course on Systems Thinking with Fritjof Capra, David W. Orr, and Center staff was Claude Ouimet, a gracious gentleman who is senior vice president and general manager for Canada and Latin America at InterfaceFLOR, a division of Interface, Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpets.

Why a carpet-manufacturing firm would be interested in systems thinking and education for sustainable living might not be immediately obvious. But Interface has been focused on environmental sustainability since 1994; in 2006, the firm announced its goal of eliminating any negative impact it has on the environment by 2020.

Moreover, when greening a company, Ouimet understands that it is essential for business leaders to address both the technical and what he calls the “softer side” of sustainability.

One way the Center for Ecoliteracy reflects the softer side of sustainability is our Smart by Nature initiative guiding principle, “Sustainability is a community practice.” Sustainability, in other words, depends on a healthy network of relationships that includes all members of the community.

Ouimet believes this idea is also essential to making a company sustainable.

“It’s not so much about changing what we do,” he says. “The goal is to change the way we think, and then we change what we do. We see lots of companies rushing in to change what they do without changing their ways of thinking. They go into a path with the same mindset, and they don’t get very far.”

“At Interface, we offer a higher purpose for people to come to work…beyond the salary and the bonus,” Ouimet adds. “If you come to Interface in Canada or the U.S. and ask people on the line what they do, there is a high chance they won’t say they are making carpets. They will probably say, ‘I’m trying my best to make a difference.'”

The leadership that generates this kind of passion and commitment (the turnover rate at InterfaceFLOR’s U.S. facility in Georgia is 5 percent, compared with an industry-wide 32 percent in the region) emphasizes cooperation — an ethic that encourages and invites people to look at their own strengths and talents to help resolve larger issues.

This attention to cooperation is very powerful, he says, because it unifies people. “When you have 5,000 people, all of them with different strengths, and you create a system that celebrates differences toward a common goal, then individual people’s talents are a gift to the collective.”

Ouimet recalls that during one business slump, senior employees were asked if they would rather lay off employees or reduce the hours of the total workforce. They voted unanimously to reduce hours and keep everyone. “When you have that emotional engagement with one another and feel safe within the organizational culture, it is a good place both for the business and for the employees,” says Ouimet.

And if people are emotionally engaged, they are more likely to be creative when you bring a problem to them to help solve.

InterfaceFLOR has people working on the mechanical side, he says, who have delivered many innovations that senior management never thought of. “It takes a mechanical mind and experience to find solutions to our challenges. It can be a couple of guys on the mill who say, ‘We can think of how to do this a different way.'”

For example, when you design a carpet tile, you need to place the pattern in the center of the tile square. So the question is how do you align the product so that it always cuts at a certain place in a certain way and the pattern is always in the center, with a little room around it for the border?

“Some companies have spent $100,000 or more to solve that problem,” Ouimet says. “But in Canada, we brought everyone together and said, ‘OK, we have a challenge. How can we do this differently?'” The solution they discovered cost $7,000.

“The solution emerged because people on the line wanted to participate. Their solution, which was ingenious, was to punch holes on the side. There is excess on each side of the roll, and the people on the line figured out how to punch holes and install sensors. The press comes down and they calculated on the rolls where the holes needed to be. It was really easy. And yes, now this registered cut is a patented solution.”

In the end, Ouimet suggests that the imperative to live sustainably may be one positive result to come from the ecological crises we now face.

“We could be happier with less stuff,” he said. “We could define ourselves by recognizing one another and seeing ourselves in one another. And if we start talking to one another and truly seeing one another, the corporate world cannot ignore it. Their success and profitability depends on it.”

Originally posted at ecoliteracy.org