Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

Interface Flooring Strives for Complete Carbon Neutrality by 2020

August 20th, 2012

Confessions of a Radical Industrialist

As usual, being the environmental contradiction that I am (sigh), I drove our Jetta Diesel from Montreal and Toronto far too often this summer. If you’ve never done this drive along the 401 — well, you’re lucky. It’s possibly the most boring and monotonous 5 hours you’ll ever spend. I found that the best coping mechanism is listening to audio books to help get through the drive. I have taken the opportunity to listen to a bunch of books I want to read, but would likely take me several months to get through (ie., business books). One of the books I listened to was Confessions of a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson.

When I looked through my website to see what I’d written about Interface, it turns out not a lot. It’s possible that I overlooked it because the product (carpet tile) and company, are  just so ingrained into every eco-designer’s and builder’s psyche, that I just assumed it was like writing about air — everyone knows about it, uses it already, so it would be pointless. But then I’d be wrong. As it turns out, while people inside the green building world are familiar with the company and its founder, Ray Anderson, the majority of people outside the green building world have never even heard of the company, let alone Ray Anderson.

In a nutshell, his book is a step by step guide of how one man came to the realization that not only was humankind responsible for climate change, but that his company was part of the problem. He proceeds to describe his goal for his company (complete carbon neutrality by 2020) and how they go about achieving it.

Ray’s “aha” moment came to him after reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Hawken states that not only are companies the main contributor to climate change, but they are also the means that will find solutions and adaptations to climate change. Ray got this message. Then he realized that his company, which makes nylon carpet tiles, was a significant contributor to the pollution mess we’re in. So Ray brought all of his senior executives together in a room one day and told them that he wanted Interface flooring to become a carbon neutral company, and the faster, the better. Needless to say, at first they thought he was nuts — he’d never shown any concern for the environment before. Furthermore, Interface’s product, carpet tiles, is made out of nylon, a 100% petroleum-based product. So how in the world do you become carbon neutral when your product is 100% dependent on petroleum?

It’s a question Interface has been dealing with since 1994. The company has set a carbon neutral goal for 2020. That gives them only 26 years to eliminate carbon from their manufacturing process. The company has made great strides in decreasing its carbon content while still providing a great product. Interface has tackled lowering its use of oil in its packaging, office operations, energy for machinery, transportation, etc. It is also finding ways to reduce its waste to zero (as Ray points out numerous times: “There is no ‘away'” — meaning that all waste will go somewhere, if not into new products, then it will end up in landfill and stay there). Right now the company is looking for ways to increase its recycled content and decrease its use of virgin petroleum. It even has a take-back program for old carpet tiles.

Interface FLOR carpet tiles

Interface FLOR carpet tiles

While Interface primarily deals with commercial and business properties, it does have a line of residential carpet (Flor) as well. If you’re in the market for new carpet, it’s worth looking into, particularly if you lean towards modern tastes.

What I really like about this book is that Ray has “seen the light”. Because he is not seen as a radical, treehugger-hippie, but rather as a businessman at the top of his company, he can direct his employees to do what it takes to decrease the company’s carbon and water footprint. And, because he is so determined to achieve carbon-neutral status, his employees bring him ideas that would be nixed before they reached senior management in most other companies. Ray gives the example of one of their factories in California. There was a proposal to put solar panels on the roof of a manufacturing building. The panels would generate a small amount of the plant’s electricity needs and cost $1.2 million. Even as I was listening, I was shaking my head thinking the cost was ridiculous vis a vis the output of electricity. But Ray told them to go ahead. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. The marketing department at Interface produced an astounding campaign around the solar panels because they ended up powering one of the carpet machines providing it with 100% renewable electricity. The product that came off that machine became a major success, more than justifying the cost of the solar panels. Huh. Who’d have thought a $1.2 million investment could have made that much of a difference. And that’s the point. Ray was a leader in every sense of the word. When he asked for something to be done it was done, even if his employees might have been skeptical at first. He was willing to take risks (sometimes they didn’t pay off, but that didn’t stop him), and he remained convinced that decreasing Interface’s carbon footprint was the best business decision he’d made. It increased the company’s efficiency, decreased its waste and water use, lowered its expenses in other areas and helped make it a leader in flooring in the commercial world.

Because Ray got it, and because he was the head of the company, the sustainable directive filtered down through the organization. If employees didn’t agree with him they would either have kept it to themselves or looked for other work. But it also allowed his organization to hire innovative thinkers and people who wanted to work for a company that was striving to make the carpeting world a better place.

However — and this is a big however — a company’s sustainability goals will not be easily achieved where the CEO doesn’t have Ray’s “aha” moment. Unfortunately most captains of industry find the task of transforming their company into “Sustainable Company 2.0” too daunting to even begin to look at and if the leaders aren’t convinced that decreasing their carbon, water and waste footprint is important, the company will never succeed in achieving sustainability. The pressure needs to come from the top.

Sadly, Ray Anderson passed away earlier this year. While his legacy and mandate continue on at Interface Flooring, his influence and sustainability leadership within the business community is greatly missed. Hopefully, other business leaders will take up his gauntlet and continue his mission towards carbon neutrality within their own companies.

For more information on Interface Flooring’s sustainability efforts, visit the website.

To see the FLOR products (residential carpet tiles), see here.



Permaculture 101: Turning lawns into food

July 30th, 2012

Pop quiz: What’s wrong with this picture?

Bucolic backyard setting

If you’re like most of us out there your answer is probably “Nothing.” It’s a beautiful, peaceful  setting, shady in spots, tranquil, how can there be anything wrong with it?

If you’re involved with the small but growing Permaculture movement, however, everything is wrong with this backyard. This is the backyard of Katherine and Willy and their two young children. In fact, they’ve recently moved from downtown Montreal to the town of Très-Saint-Rédempteur, Quebec’s first Transition Town. Permaculture and Transition Towns go together; Permaculture representsa more holistic approach to gardening. Over the years permaculture enthusiasts and experts have used the philosophy as a new way of looking at different manmade systems from manufacturing to the ways cities function.. Transition towns are about communities that are building a resilience to both peak oil and climate change. These may seem like scary, far out there ideas, but, as one transition town advocate pointed out to me, it’s absolutely not about reverting to pioneer days or the stone age. It’s definitely about embracing technology and using it to our benefit, while fitting it into a better, more sustainable, lower impact way of living. Permaculture is the foundation for Transition Towns.

Permaculture is a way to live where you develop outdoor spaces to create sustainable, productive landscapes. You work with nature instead of imposing on it. In order to develop the right permaculture landscape for your land, you need to observe your surroundings for a year or so, noting rain patterns, how the water travels, the sun’s path in summer and winter, how the winds hit your property during different times of the year while you plan your garden and surrounding area. The long-term goal is to create a mini ecosystem that regenerates itself every year with very little input from humans. It also can provide plenty of food for its inhabitants, both for animals and humans.

Katherine and her husband are already planning what will go where, including a rainwater harvesting system which will include a swimmable pond and an additional swale for better drainage, a vegetable garden, fruit orchard, honey bees, and a chicken coop. Apiaries (the equivalent of a chicken coop, only for bees) are becoming increasingly important given the rapid decline of bee populations globally, as well as providing local pollination within any permaculture project. Katherine figures the entire property will be completely “developed” with a sustainable system in about 10 years time.

The (mostly) negative impact of lawns: While a lawn serves a general purpose of providing a gathering space and  play space, it is unnecessary to have as much lawn as we in North America do. In order to maintain what we all imagine as a “perfect” lawn, a lot of energy and water go into maintaining it. The typical grass lawn requires petroleum-based fertilizer, weekly cutting, and watering twice or more per week. In a permaculture setting, lawns are minimized — if used at all, and the rest of the land becomes productive, providing food for humans and animals. Different types of trees and their specific placement provide wind breakers year round, heat barriers in summer and food in summer and fall. In Katherine’s case, she plans on taking down the random trees planted throughout the property that serve little or no purpose, and replanting with very specific goals in mind, the lawn will be turned into productive areas.

In permaculture settings, land is divided into five different zones.

  • Zone one represents the area where the most intensive work is necessary and is therefore located closest to the living quarters. In this area will be the kitchen garden and vegetables, as well very small animals such as chickens, that may be incorporated into the mix.
  • Zone two is usually a “food forest” where trees are planted that produce fruit either for humans or animals or both. Some smaller animals, such as sheep or goats, might graze here as well.
  • Zone three is where larger scale (commercial) agriculture might take place such as growing wood for fuel, cereal crops, pastures for grazing.
  • Zone four is managed forests, rangelands and wetlands.
  • zone five is the wild forest with no human intervention.Katherine and Willy’s project  will stop at zone two, as Only those projects with a lot of land and agricultural zoning / commercial plans will do steps 3, 4 and 5.

The permaculture system largely takes care of itself without the need for additional pesticides or chemical-based fertilizers and only occasional shaping from the gardener. So for instance, there would no longer be a fear of wasps around fruit trees, a problem when we had with two pear trees in our backyard a few years ago. From early August through mid-September we were unable to sit outside because of the wasps attraction to our pear trees. Introducing trees and plants that provide the habitat for wasp predators, such as orioles or bats, will help control the wasp population. If you think about the system, it makes sense; in high school biology we learned about ecosystems and how each part of the ecosystem provides food for each of the different parts of the chain forming a pretty much perfect system — until we humans get involved and start messing up everything. (If you don’t remember your high school biology, there’s also “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King.)  For example, if you leave some dead wood lying around, this will provide perfect habitat not only for useful fungi but insects such as earwigs that control your slug population!

There are 12 principles of permaculture, but in a nutshell, the three most important seem to be that a permaculture system produces no waste– what is waste from one plant or animal can be an input for another. Permaculture embraces biodiversity, because a diverse ecosystem is one that can resist diseases and pests.The design of a food forest will make it much more resistant to drought, flooding and other extreme weather events we are seeing these days. Finally, a system must produce a yield which we and any animals in the system can use. Permaculture makes use of nature’s patterns and layers, so not only does the design expand outwards from the centre, it also is integrated vertically. The upper canopy of the forest may provide fruit, the lower canopy shade-grown fruit and the underlayer provides plants which will be mulch and ground cover to keep moisture in the ground, including some edible coversuch as comfrey and other herbs. Also, integrating slope into a plan, and using gravity for water feeding is an  important consideration for permaculture projects. Katherine and her family envision their current quiet backyard as one that will one day be a vibrant, dynamic system, producing some of the food they can use to live on, as well as providing a better and way more interesting place for the kids to play and learn about permaculture.

Linoleum Flooring Guide

March 19th, 2012

Photo courtesy of Richa Wilson and Kathleen Snodgrass, via Wikimedia Commons

Linoleum flooring was the flooring of choice for schools, hospitals, residential kitchens and entry ways until the invention of vinyl (PVC) tile and sheeting. It’s relatively easy to maintain, especially newer versions, it is hypo-allergenic and doesn’t off-gas so it’s good for indoor air quality. It is a bio-based product made from linseed oil, pine rosin, cork and wood flours, limestone powder and colour pigments and is biodegradable at end of life.  The backing can be jute or acrylic — acrylic offers more structure for the smaller tile product.

There are three main manufacturers of linoleum flooring, all of whom are based in Europe. The flax that produces linseed oil is grown here in Canada, shipped to Europe to be turned into linoleum sheets and tiles, then the final product is shipped back to North America for sale. But since linoleum is also sold in Europe and Asia, and there just isn’t enough demand for linoleum in North America to warrant manufacturing facilities, Europe actually seems like a good central location.

Linoleum care: One of the reasons vinyl tiles became so popular is because linoleum requires a little more care than vinyl flooring. Traditional linoleum needs to be waxed and polished from time to time, and occasionally, when the floor starts looking dull, the finish needs to be stripped and reapplied. Between polishings however, Linoleum is best cleaned by vacuuming and then going over with a damp mop. For some great tips on how to care for your linoleum tile, see this post I found on

Best uses: Because linoleum is derived mostly from plant material, it tends to behave like wood floors do. It doesn’t like a lot of moisture, so it’s best to keep it away from damp basements, mudrooms with wet boots or pet-washing areas or even potting sheds that might see a lot of water. Linoleum absorbs water if it’s not mopped up right away and it will swell and buckle. Although it’s resilient and easier on your back than ceramic tile in a kitchen, if using in the kitchen, be conscious of mopping up spills as soon as they occur as it absorbs water similar to wood flooring. It is best used in residential settings in playrooms, bedrooms, and kitchens with care.

Benefits: Linoleum is hypoallergenic, so it doesn’t off-gas any harsh chemicals. In addition, because pigment is mixed in with the rest of the ingredients, if linoleum gets scratched, it’s difficult to notice because the entire thickness of the tile is the same colour. With vinyl flooring, the final design is sprayed or stamped on at the end of the process. As it wears, particularly in high traffic areas, the under coat (usually white), will show through.

Installation: Linoleum is best installed by a professional installer and one is usually recommended by the flooring company where you’ve purchased your product. You might also want to specify that the installer use water-based, low or zero-VOC adhesive to install the flooring in order to keep off-gassing to a minimum.

Cost: The cost of linoleum varies, depending on many factors, including whether it’s in sheet or tile form, but it can range between $3-8/sq foot just for the linoleum. This price excludes tearing up an existing floor or installation or cost of any additional products, such as a new subfloor, adhesives, or specialized installation such as inlay patterns. Talk to your installer about getting an estimate.


There are three manufacturers of linoleum tiles, all of whom base their manufacturing in Europe:

johnsoniteTarkett/Johnsonite: manufacturers of Harmonium xf sheet and tile linoleum and is available in a wide variety of colours and styles. The company adds a special coating so that the initial polishing step after installation, common with linoleum floor installations, is not required. In addition to Harmonium xf being a 95% bio-based product, the Allegro, Toscano and Veneto collections contain 37% pre-consumer recycled content. Tarkett also is a responsible manufacturer across all its flooring collections, continually striving to measure and and reduce the amount of virgin material being used, and decrease energy, water and waste. It is a member of the United Nations Global Compact, and explains:

Based on ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment and anti- corruption, the global Compact aims at contributing to a more balanced and sustainable development and responsible commercial practices.

For more information on Tarkett’s corporate responsibility efforts, visit its website.

To find a distributor near you, visit the Johnsonite website.


marmoleumMarmoleum: Made by Forbo Manufacturing, based in The Netherlands, Forbo is the largest manufacturer of linoleum in the world. All Marmoleum flooring contains natural pigments and 40% recycled content, in addition to 70% of the product being derived from rapidly renewable materials. Marmoleum is available in sheets and tiles and varying thicknesses, suitable for different uses and available in a wide variety of colours and patterns and is available at select retailers across North America.

It also is available in a “Marmoleum Click” floor — linoleum tiles glued to a composite backing that can be installed without glue.

All Marmoleum products are coated with Topshield a protective coating, no need for additional polishing. It is ready to use immediately after installation. Like all linoleums, Forbo recommends not mopping it for 5 days in order to let the adhesives (in the case of tile or sheets) cure first.

Forbo also continually strives to reduce its use of energy, water and materials and improve its recycling efforts. To read about its environmental sustainability efforts, visit its website.

To find a Marmoleum dealer near you, visit the website.


Armstrong linoleum flooring

Armstrong Linoleum Flooring: Available in sheets or tiles — although tiles are made for special order only — in a variety of thicknesses. Armstrong’s linoleum is protected with NATURcote, a finish that provides low maintenance once installed. You can specify Armstrong’s low-VOC, water-based adhesives to go with this linoleum product if you search through its EcoScorecard flooring database.

To find a dealer near you, visit Armstrong’s website.

Regarding Armstrong’s corporate environmental commitment, it is a member of the Climate Registry and submits its greenhouse gas inventory every year. In addition to reducing its carbon footprint, it also has made commitments to support sustainable forestry initiatives, reduce waste, increase recycled content in its products and continues to eliminate urea formaldehyde from its products.


The Natural Step — Helping Municipalities and Businesses Achieve Sustainability Goals

November 10th, 2010

I have a couple (just a couple) of environmental pet peeves. By “pet peeves” I mean things that I see that assume that natural resources are unlimited, because, really, that’s the way we’ve all been brought up.

  1. I play tennis on clay courts. Great for the knees, but the courts need to be watered every few hours every single day and we use city tap water to water the courts.
  2. When I drive up highway 400 on to visit my parents in Collingwood I start hyperventilating every time I see a new sign on some farmland that says: “for sale: design/build.” I also hate that I can’t take the train.
  3. When I’m in Collingwood I shake my head at the over-development that goes on up there. Horse farms have become home developments, Highway 26 is congested all the time, and large tracts of forest are disappearing to make way for more condos.
  4. I hate non-recyclable plastic toys in kids meals at fast food chains. Kids play with them for a nanosecond before they lose interest so they end up in the garbage (My kids had a bunch of them when they were little. I felt like dropping a garbage bag full of these toys on the front step of McDonald’s and saying “you created this problem, now deal with it!”)

These are just a few of the many things that I see that are, in the long-run, unsustainable practices. Despite the assumption that was made up until say, 50 years ago, natural resources are finite — even the renewable ones if they’re not managed properly. Change is difficult and sometimes the task is so daunting — like changing the way business is done, or communities are developed — that leaders might not know where to start.

A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to an event at The Toronto French School for an organization called The Natural Step (TNS). I admit that I didn’t know a lot about this group other than they were an environmental organization.  After hearing their founder speak, and doing some more extensive research on the organization I can declare, “Eureka! Here is the answer to my environmental pet peeves!”

The Natural Step was created by Dr Karl-Henrick Robèrt, an oncologist based in Sweden. In his medical practice he was seeing an increasing number of young cancer patients and given their ages and/or family history, he believed their illness couldn’t be due to genetics alone. He concluded that there had to be an environmental component as well. But instead of shrugging it off, he created a solution in The Natural Step “to promote a unifying framework for social and ecological sustainability based on a scientific consensus.” After testing, refining and implementing the framework (mostly in Canada), TNS now has a presence in 18 countries, helping municipalities and businesses achieve their sustainability goals. To give you some idea of who they work with, Interface, perhaps the most environmentally progressive carpet company in the world is one of their clients; so are Nike, IKEA, and the municipalities of Whistler, BC and Canmore, AB.

Ken Melamed, the mayor of Whistler, also attended the event and spoke about working with TNS to accomplish a vision of operating one of the most sustainable municipalities in North America. The most challenging task for Whistler of course was that they had a little thing called the Winter Olympics going on earlier this year. During the design and planning process the committee took into account future goals of the city. The town has been working on this sustainability plan since 2000. Their priorities were conserving and protecting their spectacular natural environment while providing an excellent tourist destination, affordable housing for residents, and lessening their reliance on traditional energy supplies. The town has already been recognized worldwide for their efforts through awards, including the United Nations sponsored Liveable Communities gold medal for ‘planning for the future’. It continues to monitor its progress with annual meetings with all organizations involved. You can see how they’re progressing by visiting their website: Whistler 2020.

All of Whistler’s objectives have been created through the Natural Step’s Framework. The Five Step Framework works within any organization, individual or business to help achieve sustainability goals. One of the documents on the TNS website is a Primer Guidebook on Sustainability (available here). It describes why we’re living unsustainably and more importantly that there are solutions to help us fix things. In order to fix unsustainable practices, there are five levels within the framework: Systems, Success, Strategies, Actions, and Tools. Like any good Canadian guide, the book uses hockey to demonstrate how the system is applied.

At the systems level, you have to understand the rules of the
game in order to play. At the success level, your team has
a shared understanding of success: scoring more goals that
the other team (and having fun!). You can use many different
strategies to win, including building up a strong defense or
passing in a certain formation. You then take concrete actions
to achieve success – hopefully by scoring a goal. Some of the
tools you might use include training programs to get you in
shape, coaching advice to build your skills, or a high-tech pair
of skates to improve your speed. (Source: Sustainability Primer, The Natural Step).

The Natural Step not only provides coaching and help for businesses and municipalities, it also provides education opportunities at graduate level. The University of Western Ontario which offers a Masters degree in Environment and Sustainability. There are other courses run by the Natural Step as well. See their webpage for more information.

This is a great organization to help any business or municipality to identify needs and actions to start working towards sustainable practices in the future.

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