After years of defending PVC as an ecologically sustainable industrial material, Interface, one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers and a pioneer in sustainable business, has announced that it will be eliminating virgin PVC from its entire product line by 2020.
The announcement comes as a welcome end to a long-standing conflict between the company and its core constituency of ecologically-minded consumers and businesses. In recent years, other major carpet manufacturers including Shaw and Milliken have phased PVC out of their product lines, but Interface had not followed suit. In a recent article in GreenBiz, the company’s sustainability team writes about the painful but productive process of incorporating vinyl’s full life-cycle impacts into its definition of sustainability.
Vinyl is the plastic environmentalists love to hate because of its life-cycle toxicity issues, which occur both upstream (emissions from plastic production) and downstream (if it gets burned under uncontrolled conditions). In addition, PVC always contains other chemical additives, some of which (e.g., heavy-metal stabilizers) may be quite toxic. While our Restricted Substances List adequately screens out toxic additives, it is not designed to account for these life-cycle toxicity issues.
As an early champion of lifecycle assessment (LCA), we were confident that we had a tool to account for the life-cycle of PVC. And while LCA has proven to be a reliable tool for more holistic decision-making, especially for considering carbon footprint or water impacts, it is notoriously weak at evaluating human health impacts like toxicity.
Even with robust life-cycle toxicity data (such as the chlorinated emissions from a PVC supplier), plotting it in a graph next to greenhouse gas emissions is scientifically meaningless and emotionally explosive, given that potential health impacts are far more personal and comprehensible.
Though it spent years defending PVC, in 2008 Interface began working more closely with its critics and adjusting its industrial criteria. The policy it has developed eliminates the use of virgin PVC by 2020, while reusing and diverting from the landfill millions of pounds of PVC carpet-backing currently in the waste-stream. It’s a major step forward for the carpeting industry, and we at CHEJ are glad to have Interface in our corner.
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For me personally, first learning about Interface’s story was an “ah-ha” moment. I’d seen the movie “The Corporation,” in which Interface’s founder and long-time CEO, the late Ray Anderson, speaks dramatically of his conversion to an ecological approach to business. He realized that Interface’s extraction and production practices amounted to “the way of The Plunderer, plundering something that’s not mine, something that belongs to every creature on Earth.” I later read Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, and learned with great excitement about the ways in which ecological thinking had transformed not only the contents of Interface’s carpet, but their whole business model.
Anderson and his team realized that businesses don’t want to own carpet — they want the service of floor covering. They combined this insight with the fact that when standard broadloom carpet is replaced due to worn spots, traditionally once every ten years, huge amounts of perfectly good carpet gets torn out and landfilled. There is more carpeting in US landfills than almost any other product, much of it toxic.
In response to these two realities, the company fundamentally rethought their business approach. Interface created modular carpet tiles, allowing worn areas to be replaced individually; they then leased these tiles to businesses rather than selling them, taking the worn tiles back to the factory; and they developed a higher quality, less toxic, resilient carpet product called Solenium to cover the tiles, which could be completely remanufactured into itself, retaining the value of the materials and further reducing waste.
Reading about this type of holistic, innovative approach to industry was eye-opening. It was proof that businesses can make money by being smart and following their values, by protecting their customers’ health and the environment rather than endangering it. Interface is to be commended for finally incorporating PVC-elimination into its vision. I look forward to seeing where that vision it takes the company next.