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Factory as a Forest – What Hong Kong can learn from Interface

TPB’s Will Ng reports on a Hong Kong sustainability breakfast that inspired him.

I went to a breakfast briefing hosted by Interface Hong Kong recently, where Erin Meezan, their VP in Sustainability and a seasoned speaker from their head office, shared insights into Interface’s latest progress in sustainability.

The first time I came across the carpet company was during my Master’s course at Imperial College London when we visited their London office and learned about their sustainability story that was inspired and driven by their late founder and the sustainability icon, Ray Anderson. I was particularly fond of their Mission Zero commitment, which pledged to “eliminate any negative impact Interface has on the environment by 2020”. The innovative ideas that bred out of this commitment were quite fantastic, in particular, their Net-Works program, which pays for fishing communities in Southeast Asia to collect old fishing nets discarded around coastal areas to be upcycled into carpet yarn. It was a win for the ocean and marine life, a win for those communities, and a win for Interface.

Having recently moved to Hong Kong, I was pleasantly surprised to find, through the HK Green Drinks network, that Interface has an office in Hong Kong and was hosting this event. The talk was themed around their latest sustainability mission: “Climate Take Back”. If “Mission Zero” erred on the side of eccentricity — the idea of which, let’s face it, is still quite dreamy for many manufacturers — “Climate Take Back” was definitely at the wacky end of the spectrum!

Interface’s Mission Zero commitments would only take them up to 2020, which is only just over 3 years away. The basis of Climate Take Back, apart from subsuming the role of the company’s post-2020 sustainability strategy, was to help them (and others) transition from “reducing negative impact to zero” to “generating positive impacts”. A highly laudable mission, particularly for a company in the manufacturing business.

Apart from Interface’s sustainability story that started 22 years ago, which involved a lot of humility, learning and grit over the years to achieve the Mission Zero targets, one thing that really stood out for me was their application of biomimicry, which formed the basis of Climate Take Back. Instead of viewing a manufacturing plant as an industrial unit that eats up resources at one end and churns out waste at the end, what if the factory can behave like a high-performing forest which is a provider of countless ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, soil management, and water filtration to name a few. What if it is possible for the factories, or even the carpets, to sequester carbon? What if “Factory as a Forest” is not only entirely self-sufficient, but it can also enhance its local surroundings such as communities?

Pausing for one moment to think — beyond its “cool” factor and the romantic metaphor, the concept is actually quite a seismic shift. For a company that manufactures carpets (or indeed for any other manufacturers), it would still need input materials (virgin or recycled), water and energy, and it would still produce waste in various forms. Even if it transitions from a linear economic ownership model to a circular performance-based model, that does not change the industrial processes involved and their associated (negative) impacts. So how would one even go about turning their factory into a forest?

According to Erin, as well as working with The Biomimicry Institute, one of the starting points was to take their staff to a local forest and really understand what it is actually doing, what ecosystem services it provides, and how. One interesting learning point was its non-linear, “random” and non-directional attributes, which when applied to carpet-making that has traditionally been built on a linear, “Henry Ford” efficiency and uniformity model, interesting outcomes and innovations emerge.

Perhaps more importantly, Erin also discussed opportunities for collaboration and knowledge-sharing with other manufacturers. Of course, no matter how forward-thinking and innovative Interface is, doing good is simply not enough to save the planet unless every manufacturer in every other industry also did the same or better, and only then would we stand a chance. What Interface has found is that the manufacturers from other industries at their neighbouring sites actually run similar processes. Could these companies, therefore, leapfrog to a restorative, “Factory as a Forest” type approach, without even necessarily go through the pain of reducing their negative impacts as Interface has done for the past two decades? Erin thinks so.

Although “Factory as a Forest” is still in its pilot phase, they have found ways to set standards and measure targets. I for one would very much look forward to seeing the results and fruits of this.

Finally, what can Hong Kong learn from this? Could we also take a leaf out of Interface’s book and plan for a sustainable and restorative future for our beautiful, world-class city? How can biomimicry be applied by Hong Kong city planners, designers, and property developers? Groups such as the Institute of Future Cities and initiatives such as “Greening Hong Kong” already exist; we just need to take them to a bolder, more innovative level. And what about north of the border, where secondary industries still account for 45% of the Pearl River Delta region’s GDP? With air pollution being one of the biggest (environmental) issues in China, casting it into international limelight in recent years, could the “Factory as a Forest” approach be replicated and utilised by the country’s myriad of manufacturing plants to combat these issues? I hope so. That would be truly fantastic and revolutionary.

Originally posted on Sustainable Cities Collective, 14 September 2016.

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