Beautiful business conversations with Geanne van Arkel interface

A conversation with Geanne van Arkel, Head of Sustainable Development, Interface EMEA. We talk about not only sustainable business that can be profitable. But businesses that are regenerative, restorative and resilient. Purpose, and, design play a vital role in crafting a company that delivers on those goals. In a recent Deloitte study, 73% of CFO’s now see a direct relationship between sustainable / restorative business practices and financial performance.

Conversations about Beauty – Geanne van Arkel from Alan Moore on Vimeo.


I am in Amsterdam and I am with Geanne van Arkel who is the head of sustainable development at Interface EMIR. What is Interface and what does Interface do?

G         We are actually making a connection between people and the buildings they work in and live in through the floor. We are the inventor of the carpet tile.

A          Interface have been working on a programme as I understand with reclaimed, discarded fishing nets from the sea and turns them into products that you sell. Tell me more about that.

G         This problem what waste is fishnets is not only a problem affecting diversity at sea but also is affecting people in their first livelihood and so we started back in 2012 a pilot project in the Philippines, now working around 40 communities and people there, fishermen, are not only fishing for fish but are also fishing for wasted fishnets and selling them as a supply for our carpet tiles for our supplier, and with the money they get they can save for future investments for education for their children but they also restore their environment.

A          So what other initiative is Interface involved with that excite you.

G         One of the biggest issues of this times is actually climate change so we have been thinking and discussing with our advisories on sustainability and they see possibilities if we start to move from nature and are working in a circular way, with a low carbon footprint, as we have proven that this is already possible can’t we then actually reverse climate change by living zero with a low carbon footprint but also using excess carbon as a building block. We actually even have a prototype with minus 2kg CO2 per square metre. So we were thinking when we started back in the ’90’s it was really ambitious to have products with a very low carbon footprint and actually we can make them negative carbon footprint. So there is actually the next mountain, we always refer to our journey as a mountain, we have a very clear goal but there are multiple ways to get there but we already see the next mountain coming up and we are actually quite excited to climb that one .

A          I asked a lady called Fiona Reynolds, who was the ex Director General of the National Trust and the author of the book called The Fight for Beauty and she talks about after the second world war there was a period of time when there was quite a lot of, what we call joined up thinking, which I think is what you are talking about, it doesn’t have to be a siloed approach you can be mindful of what it is that you are making and the consequences of what you are making, but also thinking about other effects, either negative or beneficial, as a consequence of that.

G         We have the need to zoom in, actually we zoom in to much and we forget to zoom out again and therefore we might be solving problems but actually accidentally we are creating a lot of problems again. The fishnets for example, it is great that we have a means to repurpose them but on the other hand they shouldn’t be there and if we then look at nature there is for example, a dolphin that creates a fishnet with air bubbles and catches fish this way. We have so much to learn from nature if you talk about beautiful design.

A          I think that is absolutely right. Of course nature’s playbook has been around for a very long time and I quite like that observation that nature wastes nothing.

G         It always has a purpose or function.

A          Exactly, I agree with you, so if businesses were to look at themselves more in that way actually they would become much better performing businesses as a consequence of that

G         Absolutely, that is our experience as well.

A          It reminds me of the CEO, Tim Mead, who runs the largest organic dairy farm in the UK, Running his farm on a normal based business actually made it very volatile he said in one week I could get two phone calls. One was that the price of oil had gone up by 50% and the other was the supermarkets on the phone saying they only wanted half of our milk this week. He said, of course I couldn’t turn the cows off like that, he said whereas running the farm organically allows them to bring a lot more financial stability into the business. Isn’t that common sense?

G         You are using the words I often feel I should use, it is more-or-less common sense but one way or another it seems we have forgotten about it and then when you again look at nature also there are far more diverse solutions so we have to optimise but only in one way which indeed makes you more vulnerable and if you ever more spread because, farmers here in the Netherlands they first were producing solely milk and then they switch to organic farming and they make cheese and all kinds of dairy products and they actually get a far higher price point for their products, better income and a better life for their animals so there is this win-win situation.

A          When we met earlier this year at this symposia which was held here in Freedom Lab we looked at one particular question which was can beauty scale, because many cynics will go of course that is alright on a very small scale but when you are talking about the very big stuff is it possible for customers to be ethical, environmentally friendly and profitable all at the same time.

G         There is no choice companies have to, we have to. I think that the only way you will have a licence to exist as a company is to run your business in an ethical, environmentally friendly and social way. This model of Hart and Millstein about creating sustainable value. If you are not able to address social and ecological issues as indicated through the sustainable development goals now then what is your point being there. Our founder Ray Anderson said this very beautifully if you think that businesses are there only there to make a profit then think again.

A          I completely agree. My last question what gives you hope?

G         What gives me hope I have an optimistic perspective and if I compare when I started to work for Interface 15 years ago in 2003 there weren’t that many people in companies involved in sustainability and when you look in the world today there are so many people, individuals, organisations embracing circular economy, bio based economy, inclusive economy, performance based economy – I actually don’t care which word we are using, as long as we all are in it for the right purpose and I see really an increase in the movement. Maybe it is not that yet visible yet on a large scale but we are really reaching this tipping point of far more maybe smaller initiatives, wider spread, that are therefore more powerful and for sure large companies can really make a difference because they are that large, but on the other hand many small initiatives is actually a very nature smart strategy to evolve for the better.

A          Geanne thank you very much

G         You are more than welcome, thank you.

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