10 Minutes with Erin Meezan, Interface

This column is about the "how" of sustainable business. At the practical level, how do leaders make change happen? Erin Meezan is chief sustainability officer at Interface. It’s amazing that in the past 20 years, Interface is the one and only company recognized each year as a leader in the annual GlobeScan survey. I explored the notion of culture with Erin, and how she and others at Interface keep their culture dynamic and keep sustainability at its core.

Bob Langert: Why and how did Interface focus on creating its special culture?

Erin Meezan: My observation is that generally many companies who started out focused on sustainability really didn't have much awareness on how important creating a culture of people focused on sustainability really was. In the early days, many of us did not make those investments trying to shift employee mindsets, to try to really broadly engage our associates. Many of us just started with the need to do something in the business to change, such as an unsustainable product.

Interface’s sustainability culture came by happenstance. It was an interesting time (early 1990s) in the business when our founder, Ray Anderson, stepped down as the leader of our American business and he brought in a potential successor. This leader increased the level of communication with employees. He did a lot of listening. He got very clear on the company's strategic vision.

Shortly thereafter, Ray Anderson had the epiphany that he had on sustainability and really focused on adding an environmental focus to our business. What we realized in retrospect was our new leader was doing all this great cultural work to get our employees reenergized and reconnected to the business. He did that right before this sustainability vision by the founder landed. These priorities merged and it had the effect of really galvanizing our people around this new sustainability vision just completely by happenstance.

As a result of that, we had people who were reconnected and reengaged in the business, excited to do something. That really created the fertile ground for the mission to take hold.

Langert: Since then, how have you kept your culture dynamic and relevant?

Meezan: As we got deeper into applying sustainability at Interface, we saw how connected people were becoming. So, over the years, we've been really purposeful about doing things like bringing in new mindsets. As Amory Lovins often says, the best way to have new ideas is to stop having the old, bad ones first.