Dan Hendrix first went to work for Atlanta, Georgia-based Interface Inc., one of the world's largest manufacturers of modular floor carpeting, when he was in his late 20s, joining the finance department as a financial manager. He quickly moved up the ranks, serving as the company's treasurer, then its chief financial officer, vice president of finance, and finally CEO. He also serves on the Interface Board of Directors.

For those not familiar with Interface and the company's visionary founder, Ray Anderson (who sadly passed away in 2011), it would be fair to say that Interface is one of the most sustainable companies in the world. The company's efforts serve as a high-water mark for sustainable business operations. The company takes care of its employees, vendors, suppliers, customers and shareholders. The company is a real-world environmental laboratory, constantly spinning out data and results supporting the conclusion that it's possible to run a business without trashing the environment. You can read more about the company's efforts at the Mission Zero website.  

But it didn't start out that way. It wasn't until the mid '90s that Anderson had his environmental epiphany and starting positioning his company towards being the green leader that it is today. Dan was working at the highest levels of Interface's finance department during Ray's green awakening and was a little skeptical at first about the new focus on sustainability. But it wasn't long before he came around, seeing the clear advantages, both financial and otherwise, that can come with running a triple bottom line company. Today he is a full-blown green business evangelist.  

I've been a big fan of Anderson and Interface for a long time and jumped at the chance to talk to Dan about what his company is up to now and what the future holds. One of the things that he's most excited about is the Net-Works project, an initiative being run in the Philippines that creates a market for used fishing nets, giving fishermen a financial incentive to not only turn in their worn-out nets but to also go out and find discarded nets on beaches and the shore. Interface then takes those discarded nets and uses them to manufacture carpeting. It's a beautiful loop of sustainable business.  

Dan took some time out of his day to answer the following questions.  

Fisherman sailing

The Net-Works program is functioning in 24 villages in an area of the Philippines that is surrounded by a double-barrier reef.

MNN: How did the idea for Net-Works — your program (along with the Zoological Society of London, yarn producer Aquafil and Project Seahorse) that pays fishermen in the Philippines for used fishing nets that get turned into carpet yarn — come to life?

Dan Hendrix: Net-Works was born in our co-innovation team, when Miriam Turner, Interface Inc.’s associate vice president of co-innovation, who has a strong background in social business, was looking for an out-of-the-box idea for how we could increase the supply of post-consumer nylon to feed our ambitious goals for recycled content in our carpet tile products. Miriam connected with her colleague at ZSL, Dr. Nick Hill, to ask about fishing nets as a potential resource, and the seed was planted. Three years later, the program is now in 24 villages in the Danajon Bank in the Philippines, and the impact on both the rare, double-barrier reef that surrounds the area as well as the villagers who are receiving a fair market price for collecting and recycling the nets, is encouraging. So much so that we are working on a plan to expand the program, with an eventual goal to help Net-Works become a financially independent program.  

Why are programs like Net-Works important?

Programs like Net-Works are important for a couple of reasons. First, because they bring us closer to meeting goals like reinventing our supply chain to create a social impact, and also because they help us identify new sources for post-consumer nylon. But more than anything, Net-Works is the kind of program that shows us what is possible when we reimagine what business looks like.  

Fishing nets polluting the beach.

Fishing net pollution on the beach now becomes money in the pocket instead of simply waste.

What’s the first step a company needs to take towards being a truly sustainable entity?

The first step is really an intellectual one – a mindset change that not only rejects business as usual but also opens your culture up to thinking in ways you have not thought before.

Interface Carpets founder Ray Anderson was a leader and innovative thinker in the world of corporation sustainability. What are you doing to carry on his environmental legacy?  

Ray’s legacy is alive and well at Interface, adopted by the 3,500 people of Interface around the world, who have embraced what we call “Mission Zero” and made it their own – and in many cases, also at home and in their communities. We remain committed to Mission Zero, and programs like Net-Works are an example of how we are continuing Ray’s commitment to “radical” notions.  

Cleaning up fishing nets after collection.

Cleaning nets before turning them into money with the Net-Works program.

Mission Zero is your plan for Interface to have no negative impact on the environment by 2020. How’s the company doing along that front?

Earlier this year, we announced that our factory in Scherpenzeel, The Netherlands, is virtually a zero footprint factory, with 100 percent renewable energy (electricity and gas), using virtually zero water in its manufacturing activities, and has attained zero waste to landfill. Ray often quoted one of his heroes, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who would say, “If it exists, it must be possible.” Zero Scherpenzeel is a guidepost for the rest of our operations, and we feel good about the potential for other factories to follow suit.  

Fishermen with large bags of nets.

Fisherman with bags of previously-discarded nets, just before selling them to Interface through their Net-Works project.

(Note from Shea: I invited Dan to make up and answer his own question here.)

In your opinion, what’s more important for a company to focus on, strategy or culture?

This question has been on my mind because I recently saw a great quote from Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Of course it’s not that cut and dried, and every business needs a strategic foundation, but the truth is that our business is in a constant state of change, cultural and geographical boundaries are fading as the world becomes more global. It’s essential to me that the Interface team be well-aligned globally, and that we commit ourselves not only to growing our company and eliminating our carbon footprint, but also to being nimble enough to do what it takes along the way to make that happen. Sustainability has created a strong sense of purpose in our culture, and it is a powerful guiding force.

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Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

When good business and sustainability collide
Interface CEO Dan Hendrix talks about what it takes to run a profitable business and take care of the planet at the same time.