1.2 Interview with Karin Laljani, InterfaceFLOR
by Tim Rich
InterfaceFLOR are the world's largest supplier of carpet tiles. For more than a decade they have been fundamentally remodelling their whole business to become “the world's first truly sustainable corporation” and ultimately “the first restorative company”. Here, design and business journalist Tim Rich meets Senior Vice President and European marketing chief Karin Laljani to talk about long journeys, biomimicry and Mission Zero.
Tim Rich (TR): Your role takes you beyond the conventional territory of a marketer – what does it cover?
Karin Laljani (KL): I'm responsible for three areas: sustainability; strategy and marketing; and innovation, product development and design. For a marketer this combination is a dream because it means I can direct what we produce and how we produce it, and I can also influence consumers and customers in terms of what they want to buy.
TR: When you joined in 2003 Interface was already several years into its sustainability journey – what was your first major sustainability challenge?
KL: Massive progress had been made in manufacturing across areas like procurement, logistics, the entire life cycle of our products in fact. Other areas like marketing, IT, finance, HR – they were completely committed to sustainability, but if you looked hard the commitment was not reflected in the way we operated. So there was a sophisticated measurements system in manufacturing but we had nothing in marketing, for example. We could spell the word 'sustainability' and communicate about it but we didn't feel it and it wasn't part of what we did. That was my first challenge – getting the marketing teams to realise it was about how we worked, how we assessed suppliers, how we printed, how we advertised. Everything.
TR: Where did you start?
KL: People, the culture. We ran workshops throughout Europe called 'The Perfect Marketer at Interface' and that started to get people into the mindset. We wanted our leaders in marketing to think about what they were doing before they did it – am I really communicating the right message? Is this really the most efficient way? Is it a socially responsible way?
TR: Looking back, were workshops the most effective way to address the issues you faced?
KL: Yes. If you're a small company where everyone is in the same building you might do it differently, but if you're a multinational spread far and wide I don't know how else you would change a culture that quickly except through workshops. We had more than 20 offices and countries to cover, but it worked.
TR: How important was sustainability for customers at this point, when you started out here?
KL: Very important. Interface had done a lot to influence the entire market. So in carpet tiling, for example, all companies had become obsessed with sustainability, many competitors seemed to have adopted our methods and we had very sustainability-educated customers. The focus was very narrow though – it was really on recycling – so the great opportunity was to define a holistic approach, to demonstrate that sustainability should be at the heart of a company. If you can't demonstrate your sustainability values through your products and services then it's a pretty hollow marketing proposition.
TR: At the same time you needed to assure Interface's shareholders that the business was doing this for sound business reasons, not just in pursuit of an idealistic or individualistic vision – how did you achieve that?
KL: By demonstrating that sustainability enables us to be more innovative and creative in the way we find solutions, and that makes us a stronger company. Biomimicry is a good example. This is about studying how nature does things and using that as inspiration to solve human problems. We've been working with Janine Benyus, who is a guru in this area, and her input has profound effects on the way we design. For example, by using random design in tiles rather than exact matching shapes you can make enormous savings in installation time and repair costs, yet the floor looks amazing. So sustainability has inspired new products with valuable benefits for customers and great efficiency benefits too. Another example is our new fair trade floor, FairWorks. Instead of giving supplier communities philanthropic donations we're developing trade relationships, and hopefully that will lead to a sustainable business relationship.
TR: One of the challenges with sustainability is that the issues are never simple yet – generally – communication today seems more and more about delivering fast, simple messages. How do you address this tension?
KL: Yes, our Seven Fronts commitments statement and our vision are fairly complex and difficult to communicate and we had to address this in our recent rebranding. The real challenge was to define the most accurate, most exciting abbreviation of our vision and commitments. Finding the logo and words was not that difficult, it was getting the thinking right. Mission Zero was the solution – this is our promise to completely eliminate the negative impact our company has on the environment by 2020. The Mission Zero branding now sits alongside every single product brand we have, and we never communicate without it. So we launched Mission Zero to capture what we are doing, but interfacesustainability.com is there for anyone who wants to know more, so we're offering different levels of conversation.
TR: And does this flexibility and sophistication feature in how you have conversations face-to-face – in sales presentations, talks, exhibitions?
KL: Absolutely. If you talk to, say, 70% of our employees they can give you answers and opinions about sustainability issues. We're looking to embed sustainability knowledge within the organisation, not just present it through marketing communications. It's another example of a holistic approach. In fact we're now making sure our leaders can all express the company's position on fundamental sustainability issues, like the role of nuclear energy.
TR: What is the company line on nuclear energy?
KL: We are discussing the issues and we will be producing something shortly in the context of renewable and traditional energy overall, but it may be that we decide it is not for us to be for or against, but that needs to be debated and agreed. Of course, you have to be careful not to turn yourself into a target in some ethical darts game.
TR: How is the company reaching a decision on what the policy should be?
KL: It is going through different teams, with input from different functions, and then it will be debated by the Board. Nuclear isn't the only issue. For example, we've identified 12 key areas where our position must be thought through. It's a great process and really makes you think very hard. This is how thorough you need to be about your brand if you want to be a pioneer.
TR: Do customers ask your teams to advise them on these issues?
KL: Demand for advice is so strong we're now launching a business strategy consultancy called InterfaceRAISE. We don't yet know if it will have a separate P&L or simply complement our core business. You have to remember that most customers buy from us because of design, service and quality, not sustainability; but for those with sustainability high up the agenda this is a very valuable new resource.
TR: How does the high profile of Interface founder Ray Anderson affect the way you communicate the brand?
KL: The two are absolutely locked together. The rebranding programme had to ensure our identity reinforced what Ray is doing, and carry the sustainability message to markets where Ray doesn't have such a high profile.
TR: What has been the response to Mission Zero?
KL: We've conducted initial research with about 200 stakeholders around the world and the consensus is that it's easy to understand but it is also seen as a very bold move. Technically, it's working extremely well at integrating our organisational brand with our products.
TR: Rebranding often means lots of new materials are produced and distributed and old materials scrapped – how have you managed your rebranding with sustainability in mind?
KL: We've thrown nothing away. We're using up all of our old inventory first. That means perception change will take much longer but we are acting true to the brand, not just making superficial change. We're also doing a take-back service, so customers can give us old samples and product resources and we'll recycle them.
TR: What are the considerations in terms of aesthetics and sustainability in your visual communications?
KL: Whatever we produce must always look beautiful and classy – that is our style. We are in design and we must not compromise on quality. At the same time in print we look for minimum 75% recycled material. But it is also about how a piece will be used – can we do it differently, so we produce less but achieve more? The new Sampling Toolkit we've produced with OPX is an example. Architects and designers want to feel and see materials, so you can't just take everything online, but we wanted to reduce the number of full tiles they were ordering as samples. The solution was a printed swatch book – like a Pantone book – so customers experience more and need fewer samples. And we can send updates to customers, so the book has a long life. Long term, we're looking to reduce the overall use of sample books by about 40%, and we're looking to find more and more electronic ways to demonstrate our designs.
TR: Is there another example in the area of product design?
KL: We've created a new category called SignatureWorks – limited edition designer tiles. It doesn't lead on sustainability, it just subtly demonstrates that you can work with sustainable practices and yet produce something incredibly creative, beautiful and exciting. So one of the products is a tile that you can literally paint on to. It's the opposite of presenting sustainable products as righteous and correct. We're very excited about it.
TR: Looking ahead, what's your toughest challenge?
KL: To fully overcome the narrow 4P mentality in marketing – the over-tight focus on product, price, place and promotion. And the sense that everything has to have a brochure. We're trying to create a more holistic approach to the way we do things and the challenge is to inspire all of our teams around the world to see the possibilities. But we're getting there, and this is the sort of challenge you must relish if you want to stay one step ahead.