A Factory Like a Forest: Interface and Biomimicry 3.8 Announce the Positive Performance Methodology

By: John A. Lanier

Ray Anderson and the people of Interface were pioneers in creating a model for corporate sustainability. We need corporations to go beyond that benchmark though, seeking ways to be regenerative enterprises. What might that framework look like? Interface and Biomimicry 3.8 have the answer, and it’s called the Positive Performance Methodology.

How do you keep climbing a mountain once you’ve reached the top? The answer is, “You don’t.” But I’m speaking metaphorically here, not literally, and the metaphor is one that has long been near and dear to my heart - climbing Mount Sustainability. That’s how Ray Anderson described Interface’s ambitious goal set in the 1990s. He called it a mountain higher than Everest, and only at the summit could a business claim to be truly sustainable.

From the beginning though, Ray knew that the summit of Mount Sustainability was a waypoint, not a finish line. Given the scale of environmental degradation, any business that becomes truly sustainable must keep going, working to become a regenerative enterprise. If sustainability is about doing no harm, regeneration is about doing good. A regenerative company is one that, by the very nature of how it operates, helps to heal and enrich both communities and the environment. In a sense, Mount Sustainability and its seven different fronts were the framework for how any business can pursue sustainability. But what about a corresponding framework for a regenerative enterprise? What might that look like?


There are No Shortcuts to a Regenerative Business Model

I want to start by telling you what it doesn’t look like. A business cannot become regenerative by relying on offsets or side-projects. To unpack that a bit, let’s use a hypothetical. Let’s say your typical, run-of-the-mill widget maker in Anytown, USA has decided to tackle this green thing. They hire a new sustainability manager, or perhaps engage some consultants, and they are told that the first step is to measure their environmental impacts because “they can’t manage what they don’t measure.” Groovy.
After doing so, they get robust data on both their products (the widgets) and their infrastructure (the widget manufacturing plant). They know their energy consumption, both in terms of electricity and thermal energy. They know what their waste to landfill metrics are. They know how much water they use. They have a handle on how many fossil fuels are burned to transport their widgets to their customers. The life cycle analysis of their widgets shows if there are any toxicity concerns with the materials in their supply chain and if their widgets can be recycled at the end of their useful life. Still groovy.
So they get to work. Maybe they change up their suppliers a bit, sourcing higher recycled content for their widgets. They might install some water and energy efficient fixtures at their manufacturing plant. Perhaps they redesign the manufacturing process so that they generate less waste-per-widget. These are all good things, but taken as a whole, it means their negative impact is less bad, not eliminated.
So the CEO of the widget maker, who is well intentioned but a novice when it comes to this green thing, asks the sustainability folks how many of those offset thingies they would need to buy to eliminate their impact. The sustainability folks try to protest with a, “Well, it’s complicated…,” but the CEO interrupts them and says, “Just tell me how many.” So they come back with an estimate - 100,000 of those offset thingies. The CEO, who just reported to the Board that they had a record year selling widgets, says, “Great! Let’s buy 200,000 then, and have our employees do a trash cleanup day in the local community. We did it folks - we are a regenerative enterprise!”
In the immortal words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.” All of the negative impacts of their products and facilities are still there. That doesn’t make buying offsets and doing community service a bad thing, but they cannot be a substitute for the hard work of redesigning how a business operates in the first place. Being truly sustainable is a high bar, and being authentically regenerative is an even higher one. There are no shortcuts.

Introducing the Positive Performance Methodology

So what does it look like? Let me present to you the Positive Performance Methodology. That link will take you to a case study on the work of Interface and Biomimicry 3.8 (“B3.8”), the design consultancy that helped them conceptualize what it would be like to pursue a regenerative model. For Interface, this was the next frontier. It has already reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 96%, reduced water intensity by 86%, reduced waste to landfill by 85%, and sourced 50% of its raw materials from recycled or bio-based sources. Those numbers are incredible, and while they can still be improved upon, much of that improvement can only be done as the economic system in which Interface operates moves forward on sustainability. An example of this would be extended producer responsibility laws that would ensure more old carpet gets recycled, helping Interface increase its recycled content sourcing. Things like that are outside of the company’s direct control.
What isn’t outside of their control, however, are their facilities, and this is where Interface and B3.8 focused. They started with a deceptively simple question - “Can a factory function like a forest?” That might sound overly simplistic, but it’s a question that moves the goalposts in an interesting and positive direction. Here is why.
Remember our widget maker above? They started with measuring negative impact, which is absolutely the right starting point. That said, conventional environmental metrics only account for the direct negative impact of the products and facilities of a business. What they don’t account for are the environmental benefits that would have been there if those products and facilities had never existed. Again, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. And what has gone almost entirely unmeasured by the corporate sustainability movement are the ecosystem services - things like filtered water, sequestered carbon, and clean air - that businesses routinely displace.
Those are what Interface set out to measure and manage. The Positive Performance Methodology involves four sequential steps: (1) Identify the ecological and social dynamics of a site; (2) Quantify the ecosystem services delivered by a local reference site; (3) Create design strategies that will close the gap between a business’s site and the reference habitat, and; (4) Implement those strategies. To give you a flavor of what this looks like in practice, here is an excerpt from page 17 of the case study:
As part of the Quantify process, the B3.8 team was able to calculate how much carbon the Interface property should sequester per year; how much rainwater it should absorb, let run off, or evaporate back into the air; and how much biodiversity should be maintained across the landscape. This uncovered the following, specific to water:
    • Due to existing lush greenery, 78% of all rainwater was redirected back into the sky through evapotranspiration.
    • Most of the remaining water became surface or subsurface runoff.
    • Less than 1% infiltrated the groundwater table due to the non-porous bedrock.
These insights led to recommendations on how Interface could close the transpiration gap, knowing the non-porous bedrock was incapable of water retention.
    • Some explored opportunities included:
    • Rainwater collection and stormwater management plans unique to place,
    • Integration of native plants into the landscape, and
    • Addition of water features to reintegrate moisture into the air.
Even though all solutions that emerge from the process are based on reference ecosystems, each facility will end up adopting different specific strategies to solve their specific water issues, resulting in place-inspired facility design that is more locally attuned and resilient to its place.
I hope that excerpt gives you a taste of how specifically attuned this work is, and needs to be. Nature doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to creating a healthy environment, so why should we? In addition, the case study highlights something really important toward the end. This framework is about so much more than improving the performance of a corporation’s facilities. It represents a mindset shift, specifically “from reducing the negative effects of manufacturing on the environment to seeing an organization as an active, positive contributor to nature.” If business and industry is to help regenerate the world, this is the mindset it will have to universally adopt. Bravo to Interface for leading the way, once again.