Seven Slippery Slopes

Defining the Future

“Like a spear in the chest”. That’s how Ray Anderson described his reaction to a realization — make that an epiphany — in 1994. Anderson had founded Interface Corporation, an innovative carpet manufacturing company, in the 1970’s. By 1994, the business was global and doing great, with revenues approaching $1 billion. The epiphany concerned Interface’s unnatural relationship with the natural world. Thus began an earnest effort to make Interface the world’s first truly Sustainable manufacturing firm. [1]

An abrupt and dramatic course change is no small matter with a billion dollar business. There were lots of incredulous people and lots of reasons to turn back. For one, there was no clear operational definition of what a Sustainable manufacturer is, does and doesn’t do. So Interface invented its own.

Dreamstime - Austrian Alps
Interface’s operational definition used (and still uses) Mount Sustainability as a metaphor. Mount Sustainability is taller than Mt. Everest. Mount Sustainability has seven different fronts or slopes, all of which need be climbed, and each of which grow progressively steeper and slipperier as one progresses.

  • Slope #1 – Eliminate Waste: Eliminate all forms of waste in every area of business.

  • Slope #2 – Benign Emissions: Eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities.

  • Slope #3 – Renewable Energy: Operate facilities with 100% renewable energy.

  • Slope #4 – Close the Loop: Redesign processes and products to close the technical loop using recovered and bio-based materials.

  • Slope #5 – Resource Efficient Transportation: Transport people and products efficiently to eliminate waste and emissions.

  • Slope #6 – Sensitize Stakeholders: Create a culture that uses Sustainability principles to improve the lives and livelihoods of all our stakeholders.

  • Slope #7 – Redesign Commerce: Create a new business model that demonstrates and supports the value of Sustainability-based commerce.

Interface tracks and measures progress along each of these slopes. Their progress since 1994 is clear, beyond debate and, to be frank, astonishing. So are their numbers. Demonstrably, Interface’s Sustainability efforts reflect business decisions that build margins and strengthen relationships. Equating Sustainable practices with incremental costs just ain’t necessarily so. [2]

Which Way is Up?

Today, manufacturers who choose to pursue Sustainability still need to assess their motivations for doing so, and they need to formulate and articulate a clear vision as to what “Sustainability” means to them. This is an important, perhaps critical matter. The vision defines the objective; hence it becomes a “pole star” to guide the entire Sustainability initiative. The vision really needs to come from the CEO (or whatever you call the boss) — it is that important.

Here is Interface’s vision statement:

Like articulating the vision, creating the action plans — the “how to” for the journey from where one starts to where one wants to go — is unique to each organization. Happily, the “how to” part is easier today than it was when Interface began its journey because precedents and models are available to learn from. Here are some thoughts:

  • Assemble a steering committee to formulate and administer the action plans and their execution. Include some people from outside your firm, so that committee has a diversity of viewpoints. Include at least one member who has a very broad range of experiences in business and in Sustainability.

  • Study Interface as an example. Read Ray Anderson’s book. Visit the Interface website. Relate what you learn to your own realities.

  • Many manufacturing firms now publish Sustainability Reports on the web. Transparency is a virtue in the Green world, so there is a lot of information readily available on what others are doing. You might google Ford, General Electric, SAPPI, Proctor & Gamble or BMW for starters. These firms may be a lot bigger than yours, but their approaches to Sustainability are informative.

  • There are several previous posts to this blog that may be useful. In particular, see What’s Wrong with ISO? [3] Sustainability Planning – The Baldrige Approach [4] and A Sustainability Standard for Manufacturers [5]

This post began with a “spear in the chest” that initiated dramatic change in a billion dollar corporation. The “spear” was a wake-up call that added urgency to importance. The fact is, spear or no spear, it is readily apparent that successful manufacturing in the 21st century requires new and different ways of thinking. Don’t wait on an epiphany. Get ahead of this wave.

What do you regard as the thinking necessary for success in 21st century manufacturing? What are you doing about it? Click on the title of this post to open the comments section.Chuck Atop Mountain

…  Chuck Harrington

P. S
.  There is more useful information under the “Getting Started” tab on the Jera website,

A .pdf version of the post is available at:

Image credit: Mountain photo – Dreamstime,

[1] Paraphrased from Anderson, Ray C. and Robin White, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, St. Martin’s Press, New York (2009)


[2] This section draws on Anderson’s book (cited above) and Interface Corporation’s website,