Climate Take Back + Sustainability with Interface's Lisa Conway | cA Weekly 08/20 - Full Transcript

August 02, 2021 - by commARCH
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Climate Take Back + Sustainability with Interface's Lisa Conway | cA Weekly 08/20  - Full Transcript

The following is a transcript of an episode of the commARCH Weekly Podcast Series.The full episode is available in video format on the commARCH site or in audio format on all major podcast platforms.

CA: Welcome to the commARCH Weekly Podcast Series, a space to share and explore the latest thinking in architecture, building science, materials, and design. Before we begin, please remember to subscribe to one or all of our channels: YouTube, all major podcast platforms, and of course, the commARCH website. In this episode, commARCH has a dialogue with Lisa Conway, Vice President of Sustainability at Interface, to discuss the ever-more important need for businesses to engage in sustainable practices and how Interface pursues its sustainability mission.

Areas covered include: Interface's commitment to its core mission of Climate Take Back and the many avenues in which Interface pursues sustainability and seeks to globally increase understanding of the climate crisis, outlining Interface's journey towards sustainable practices and how interface has built a business driven by its mission, and highlighting some of the many ways architects can enhance their operations to boost sustainability.

Lisa Conway serves as VP of Sustainability at Interface, the global flooring manufacturer that is leading industry to love the world. She and her team are responsible for regional activation of the company's mission: Climate Take Back. Lisa is passionate about bringing awareness to the interconnectedness of environmental sustainability and human health.

To drive, understanding around the impact of carbon on human health, Lisa and her team provide educational programming on the need for transparency and prioritization of embodied carbon in specifications within the building industry. Lisa co-founded the materials Carbon Action Network, or materialsCAN, in 2018 to mobilize this effort. She also serves on the Sustainable Advisory board For Penn State University's Smeal College of Business and was named to CoreNet's "36 under 36" in 2015.

Thank you for joining us this week, let's hop into the podcast.

CA: Lisa Conway - you're the VP of Sustainability for Interface. Can we talk about what you- what brought you to this point? Because it's such an incredibly cool and impactful role.

Lisa Conway: Yeah, it wasn't a straight line. (laughter) I actually had no intentions of being in sustainability when I went to college or when I was younger or any of that.

But I I went to drexel University for interior design and my co-op, actually, was doing procurement for a hospitality design firm. And what I realized is I really liked the business side of interior design, more so than the actual designing. But those jobs are hard to find. I really enjoyed it, but once I got out, I was a regular designer, if you will, which was the, obviously the full intention of my degree.

CA: Co-op- was the school co-op, was it involved, or?

LC: The school is involved, yeah - I actually found my co-op - which is just a different name for an internship - it's longer than an internship, six months. So I actually filled in for someone while she was on maternity leave.

And yeah - so Drexel helps you find a co-op usually, but I found one of my own.

CA: At my school, the co-op was like, you got discounted food and books. Wow. This is the most progressive co-op.

LC: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

CA: Sorry for interrupting, I just had to know.

LC: No worries, no worries. So post-school, I lasted a whopping seven months as a designer before I realized that I really wanted to do something else, but I really didn't know what. I mean, I was really young and local- a carpet company, national carpet company, was opening a showroom in Philadelphia and needed a showroom manager. So it was that opportunity that took me away from design, and brought me into the carpet world. If you will. And I did that for a couple of years, took on some sales accounts as I had had longer tenure with the company. And then Interface actually found me through a headhunter and was looking for a sales rep in the Philadelphia area to join an already established team here.

And I met with the hiring manager at 30th Street Station, our train station here in Philly. And you know, I was 26 at the time, not loyal to any company, and I liked the hiring manager and figured why not? That's when I joined Interface, which was back in 2007, and spent a good six and a half years in sales, then went on to be a a Global Sales Regional Vice President, which was a really cool role as well, followed by sales management. I was not made for sales management, (laughter) but it was really through that, that, kind of going back to 2007, when I had joined the company and read Ray's book - Ray Anderson being the founder of the company - he had written a book called Mid-Course Correction.

And I hadn't come to Interface because of sustainability. But when I read that book, I had my own spear-in-the-chest moment, which is what he had when he learned of how much of a plunderer of the Earth he was.

CA: So it was a customer that challenged him, right? "What's your company doing to the environment?" And he didn't have an answer.

LC: He didn't have an answer and he wasn't into sustainability. He didn't really even know what the term meant or what the problem was.
 And it was reading Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, he realized, "Whoa, the product that we make..." And so many products and interiors are made of plastic, which comes from oil.

And it wasn't until he realized that, that he really put us on the path to Mission Zero. And it wasn't until I read about his awakening you know, that I realized the scale of the problem and the opportunity for impact that we have. So throughout all of those roles that I've had at Interface, I've just been really passionate and vocal about sustainability and using it with customers to really educate them and meet them where they are on their goals that this opportunity became available.

And I couldn't be happier. It's such a - it's such an honor. You know, after really admiring Ray from within his own company just - he was just always this hero to me. And to be able to be in a sustainability role at his company is just a - it's a dream come true. I never thought that it would be possible.

CA: I saw him speak at one of the Greenbuilds, years ago.

LC: He - the later part of his career, he was working the speaking circuit, more so then than running the business day-to-day. Everyone - and it never gets old meeting people that have heard him speak because it's - he was always so authentic. One of the ways that I think he was so incredible in speaking - and he often read, which a lot of people don't - they usually think that great speakers don't read from notes. And he almost always read his speeches and still, it was just so authentic and powerful. So yeah, he was a unique man.

CA: It's - you have to figure out what works for you. You can't go by anybody else's... but, okay. So I pulled a quote from Paul Hawken's book and I want to read and then relate it back to Interface. "More and more businesses really want to do the right thing. They feel better about themselves, their workers feel better. And so do their customers. I think this is equally true in the transnational corporations, but it is harder to express in those situations." It sounds like that sentence is Interface now.

LC: Yeah. And a lot of people ask me, "How can we have the transformation that Interface has? How can we get everybody on the bus?" And the hard part about answering that question is that for us, it came so authentically from the top, and no one was required to to get on board. Everyone has their own process for really realizing what the meaning of our company's mission has been, you know, is - we have a new mission, now, that we launched in 2016: Mission Zero - but if you don't have that authentic kind of awakening from the top, I think it's really hard.

And I think it's in a lot of ways unfair for a lot of people in sustainability roles to be charged with having everyone in the organization have this awakening and be educated. Because there's, there's just nothing like it coming from the top, I think that that's leadership.

CA: So the company is known for carpet tiles, resilient flooring, but also Climate Take Back is part of your brand now.

LC: Yeah it's funny because when we have people join the company, and it's like it's this sustainability company that happens to make flooring. And it's some people are really uncomfortable with the fact that we make flooring because it's so not sexy in their minds. But it is - it shows that you can take a product that we hate to ever be called a commodity. But when we are - when it is called a commodity, it's, it can actually be more powerful for people because it doesn't matter what you make. You can totally transform your business and minds and industry.

CA: Awesome. So let's let's spend a minute for Climate Take Back. I Liked your line. "It's like a sustainability company that does flooring," but how does that express itself within the company and activities?

LC: Yeah. I mean, no matter where you sit in the company, you are a part of the mission, whether you realize it or care about sustainability or not. Every, um, everyone on our front lines of manufacturing they're making - whether they know it or not - we've told them, maybe they care, maybe they don't, but they're going to be making carbon-negative products in September. 
And it's a strange measurement that carbon-negative is something so positive, but it actually means that the products that will make store more carbon than it took to actually create them.

CA: Yeah, we did a story on that for concrete and it's brilliant.

LC: Yeah, I know, it's - and concrete's a heavy hitter from a structural perspective of buildings, and carpet can be a heavy hitter, a very heavy hitter within the interior environment. So if you're doing a renovation project carpet is actually one of the first places that you should look, to make sure that you're specifying a low carbon footprint or low embodied carbon product. You know, every seat on the bus, every frontline seller, every manufacturing worker - it's not just... there are very few people with the title, "Sustainability" in our company. In fact, the only ones are externally facing. Everyone else is doing their role in a sustainable way. Whether they like it or not. (Laughter) And most do - I think that there's really something to be said for working at a company that has such purpose. I always say it's really hard to leave. Because, where do you go, that you get to work somewhere as that's doing work as important as we're doing. As small as we are in the global world, you know...

CA: For years - who knows because of what's going on this year - but for years it's been "This is what we stand for as a company," and we know that if we're purpose driven, we're going to retain employees and all those things. And then their purpose is incredibly lame.

LC:  (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

CA: Where this is really aspirational and I'm glad it translates to "This is where I want to be."

LC: Yeah, I think it's - it's hard work, you know, it is not - there's a little bit of magic that comes with it that you really just need to have that authenticity of where you are. Not - not greenwashing, and making sure that everybody really understands how much work it takes to do the right thing. Because if it's just, volunteering and donations, that's not really - that doesn't go all the way through your company's brand. So, so yeah, I think it's hard.

CA: So all right, I'm going to - this is the first time I'm saying it out loud. Okay. So 
materialsCAN.org. Did I say it right? 

LC: Yes, you did.

CA: Okay, good. So how are you all involved with that?

LC: Yeah, so part of my role at Interface's mission activation - and I alluded to the fact that we're not the biggest carpet company, you know, not by a long shot - we're not the biggest flooring company, we've even acquired Nora rubber, for example, and we've gotten bigger, but we're still not that big. If our mission is to reverse global warming, which is what our mission is through Climate Take Back, we need to partner with others of scale. And materialsCAN stands for materials Carbon Action Network. So what we've done is partnered with other organizations that are in our space to really start to understand the issue of embodied carbon.

It's not the sexiest term. It sounds really science-y, but all that it means is the carbon impact of the materials that we specify to create buildings, to create spaces. So our purpose is to get out there and raise awareness and provide education on that carbon impact. Because when we, when we think about the.

The carbon impact of a building, you probably think about saving on your air conditioning, or turning lights off at home. And those things are important. But what we haven't thought about is the carbon impact of that light switch right before it gets to you. Or the wood or concrete that would go into a building or the carpet or any type of material. So the reason that's important is because saving energy over the life cycle of your house or a commercial building is certainly important, but we have probably less than 10 years to reverse - to actually be able to reverse global warming. 

So we need to really focus on the emissions that are happening right now. And there are emissions associated with every material that gets specified. So another way of thinking about them is specified emissions.

CA: Okay to get a little abstract - so aesthetics now are evolving. You would think so beauty isn't just one thing - this is a component now of beautiful things, yes?

LC: Yeah, absolutely. It's how people, especially in our world in interiors - it's a driving factor in why a product might get chosen.

CA: Do architects ask you questions about it?

LC: About embodied carbon?

CA: Yeah, yeah.

LC: It's just starting, I mean, architects - I think that architects have been earlier than interior designers in thinking about this, but the conversation is not nearly at scale, even within architecture and engineering. Engineering has been the first to really, "Oh, of course, it's energy, it's carbon savings," but into the supply chain, that makes sense. Architects think about it a lot because a lot of the conversation is around concrete and steel, which are things that they specify, mix - concrete mix, for example. Interior designers have largely been left out of the carbon conversation because it's been so tied to operational energy savings. So this is really an opportunity for interior designers to stand up and say, "Hey, I can have a huge impact on reversing global warming through my specifications."

A much larger impact than not driving my car for a year, which feels like a very personal - like I don't even want to give up my car for a year and I have sustainability in my title. But the impact that designers can have through their specifications are totally, you know - your impact at home is almost dwarfed by the opportunity that you have at work.

CA: So what's EcoMetrics, how does that all fit?

LC: EcoMetrics are just what we call our sustainability metrics. They are the metrics for us of Mission Zero, which has been our promise to eliminate any negative impact we have on the environment by the year 2020. So that's just how we met. Carbon footprint reduction of our products, you know, energy savings in manufacturing, renewable energy usage around the world, et cetera.

CA: Water use, probably?

LC: Yep. Exactly. There are a lot of the recycled bio-based content in products. So across our entire supply chain.

CA: In your role, how do you individually personify it, like with your family, with your home, regular practices.

LC: Yeah. I think one of the things with sustainability is - and I'm not even sure if this was a Ray quote, but it's him that I heard it from, "Once you know something. You can't unknow it." So once you start engaging with sustainability, it's impossible to not do it at home. It can't be just your job. So we do a lot of fun things at home especially with the kids. So I have a six and an eight year old. And if you ask my daughter what I do for a living, she would say Climate Take Back, which is so adorable. And we actually had an assignment through the virtual learning - when I had this additional hat of also being her teacher - where there was a global warming assignment at school and it was so cool. Cause she's like, "Well, mommy, we already do all of this stuff." And I'm like, "I know!"

And I think the important thing is that you engage your kids with what you're doing. You don't just put solar panels on, you talk with them about why that's so important. And why we have - my husband makes fun of me, but we even have reusable tissues. He really struggles with that one. (Laughter)

CA: I'm not familiar with that!

LC: They're handkerchiefs! They're little, you know - when you call it a handkerchief, people get it. But when it's a reusable tissue, they're like, oh, but it's just cloth, pieces of cloth to use as tissues.

CA: I have read something - or somebody was lecturing, somebody from a older generation, about that they weren't sustainable. And the person was like, we had diapers that you recycle. We had what you just said, lets not forget that we could do that.

LC: Why did we create disposable versions of all of these things that we used to have reusable versions of, exactly and a lot of it's a lot of it's getting back to older ways of living. So yeah, I think there's just this really nice kind of interwoven approach to life when you think about sustainability, because you can really do it at work and at home, both are important.

CA: So you're obviously doing it. Let's say I was a salesperson for Interface. When I'm communicating the company, am I living it like you where I really believe, or am I still selling a product with a nice message?

LC: I think there are - listen, Interface, just like society, there are all different kinds of people. We have an opportunity at Interface that we actually call Carbon Lovers, which is where our sales force can take on this additional level of responsibility in learning more. There's a bare minimum that you need to sell the product, but how much more do you want to take on, how much more do you want to know? And we have, I'm trying to think - I think that we have about 50% of our sales force at this point engaged as a Carbon Lover. That's pretty high, cause I think - you taking on any additional level of responsibility is hard.

And, we have a lot of people engaging in that extra content that we offer. So...

CA: I've got a fix on how you hire and who you attract too, because you could hear a salesperson going, "What do you want me to do? Sell carpet...?"

LC: Exactly. Yeah we have no trouble recruiting talent that's for sure. Because people want to work here. I think it's - a lot of the challenge, honestly, is some of us, especially some of our newer salespeople that we've hired have come here because of our brand. And we need to keep up with that level of engagement around our mission so that when they get here, it's everything they thought it would be. So that it's not, "Oh, you're this brand," and then, behind the curtain there's nothing for me to engage with regarding our mission. So we work really hard at that, making sure that we live up to the expectations that people have of us from the outside.

CA: That's great. Our audience is primarily early to mid-career architects and owners and developers. They're establishing brand, they care about mission. If you would give them career advice or counsel, what would you want to tell them from the Interface experience?

LC: I would say - people often ask me how to get into a sustainability role, for example, and the younger audience especially is interested in having sustainability be part of their role, whether they're in a full-time sustainability role or not. What I would say is just always exercise your passion and learn. And take on what I described - these roles that are not for additional pay, they're not for additional recognition. But they are for kind of a specialty, you know? It really didn't take much to really be identified as the sustainability champion, even within a company like Interface because there, there aren't that many people that are willing to put themselves out there and talk about things that maybe they don't fully understand. I early on was doing some climate rallies and joining an organization, for example, 
350.org Philly. And I couldn't explain climate science, but I know that the science is real. And I'm willing to add my voice to that conversation and talk about why it's important to me, to try and move the needle. So I just think whatever you're passionate about, take on additional responsibilities, be vocal, put yourself out there and be comfortable being uncomfortable.

That's the answer with so much these days. We talk about racism in America and climate change. None of us are gonna understand all of it, but it's so important to have the conversation. So I would say if you're interested in sustainability, just talk about it, talk about everything that you're passionate about and be okay with being uncomfortable.

CA: Without - we want to be careful, but without deeply going into the racial part, you want to be recognized as a company where people feel like they really do have a seat at the table and it's uncomfortable there.

LC: And our own CEO was uncomfortable. He made a statement given all of the protests and everything that happened with George Floyd and others. He put himself in an uncomfortable spot saying, "We have a lot of work to do and we're committing to do the work. We haven't figured it all out, but we're going to call on on our own people of color within our own organization to lead the way." And he doesn't need to be the one to lead that. But he does need to be the one to state that we're gonna make some changes.

That's how Ray got where he was. He was totally uncomfortable, I've been uncomfortable. I think that I think it's an important point of adulthood.

CA: Yeah, right? You can't keep it the same, but it depends on how people think and embrace it. So, Interface. Are you doing CEUs, lunch-and-learns, things like that?

LC: Yeah. Yeah we are, especially now. So our team used to travel so much and now we're actually loving how much more we can connect with people virtually. So you can reach out to sustainability@interface.com and we're happy to set up a CEU. We have a CEU actually called Climate Take Back, which really introduces the idea of reversing global warming. And we have other CEUs available as well, but in the context of this conversation, that one's probably the most relevant.

CA: That's great. My final question was - maybe you just answered it - is how should our audience connect with Interface? What's the best way to start a relationship?

LC: Yeah, so there's a few ways. You can - that's an email address, obviously. I'm certainly on LinkedIn and Twitter. Twitter, I'm @lisaconway215. LinkedIn, just my name, obviously. And then we also have 
materialsCAN.org. And there's actually a contact form on there to really just stay abreast of all of the new information coming out around this topic of embodied carbon. It's very important for for architects. If that's most of your audience, it's important for all of us, but the concrete - even though I'm a flooring manufacturer, the concrete and steel is by far the biggest opportunity for reduction- (Inaudible distortion) -interior spaces, carpet MEP, things like that. 

So there's some really great resources and case studies on materialsCAN.org to really start engaging with the topic, both in really short format ways, and then also longer format. There's even class assignment templates for anyone who might teach or have just recently come out of college to suggest as part of the program curriculum that was loaned to us by by San Jose State, who had a great template for that. So it's important to get this topic in early and often.

CA: That's cool. You talked about the architects, I promised that was the last question, but, we "promise," eh? (Laughter) For the owners and developers though, by taking this path, you would think, per square foot, they can get more. They could attract companies that want that as part of their brand. They could be a much more desirable, whatever it might be, hotel or...?

LC: So for owners and developers what we're talking about with the embodied carbon conversation is what are called Scope 3 Emissions. So those are the carbon emissions that are in their supply chain. And the opportunity is really to connect those supply chain emissions savings with making an impact, a positive impact on human health by reducing their contribution to global warming.
So there's some really neat ties that we can make there in just being a really responsible owner and developer. 
And it's all really measurable now through a free and open access tool called the Embodied Carbon and Construction Calculator. So that's available at buildingtransparency.org and allows you to measure - owners love to be able to measure things so that you can claim leadership, right? Claim impact, and carbon emissions are great. It's super impactful and they're measurable. There's already a baseline loaded in the tool. So you can talk about reduction from baseline. I think that's a really important way for everyone to start thinking about it.

CA: And it, it fits into the storytelling of the building.

LC: Yeah, exactly.

CA: Thank you so much. This was so much fun.

LC: Yeah, absolutely.

CA: And I learned a lot. Thank you, thanks for being part.

cA: The commARCH team thanks you as always for joining us for this week's podcast. Please remember to subscribe to the commARCH YouTube channel, follow us on your favorite podcast platform, and take advantage of the commARCH website, where you can access all of these platforms and associated podcast transcripts. Until next time.

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