Nature Is Firms Model

February 21, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Viewing nature as the low-cost producer that leaves no waste behind, the largest maker of textiles to the office furniture industry has taken another step forward in sustainable manufacturing with the introduction of a new product made entirely from recycled materials.

Guilford of Maine's Terratex fabric, used on modular office walls by furniture manufacturers, is now made from 100 percent recycled clear plastic bottles.

The product is the result of a push by Guilford's parent company, Interface Inc., and its chairman, Ray Anderson, to become a fully sustainable manufacturer that uses recycled materials to produce products that are themselves recyclable, and do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable.

As with Interface's other business units, sustainability represents the backbone of Guilford of Maine's business model and planning. The mindset is inherent throughout the operation and helps to generate continuous improvements in operating efficiency and waste and cost reductions, said Mark LaCroix, divisional vice president for Guilford of Maine's Grand Rapids operations, which include product design, product development, marketing, sales and distribution.

"The model for our business is nature," LaCroix said, emphasizing that the philosophy has as much to do with business practices and processes as it does with good environmental stewardship. "The idea is to design products that never end up as waste and to design them for their first life, their second life, and their third life, and so on."

In the case of Terratex, a brand name used throughout Interface Fabrics Group, which includes Guilford of Maine, plastic water and soda bottles are ground into small chips and then formed into a polyester fiber that is dyed and woven into fabric. Taking sustainability another step further, Guilford is working on a program and wants to reach out to furniture manufacturers and re-manufacturers to take the worn-out fabric from cubicle walls that use Terratex and recycle it into something else, preventing the material from going into a landfill.

Guilford's business model, LaCroix said, goes beyond the content used and takes into account how much energy is used to produce a product and how much carbon dioxide and wastewater is emitted in the manufacturing process. Guilford's production plant in Guilford, Maine, for instance, gets a certain percentage of its electrical power from wind generation.

"This is about a competitive strategy. This is about winning in the marketplace," he said. "Nature is the low-cost producer. There is no waste in nature, and if we can mimic nature, we are going to win in the marketplace."

The key is to successfully produce a product from recycled and recyclable materials that has the same aesthetic value and is just as functional and affordable as that made from raw materials, LaCroix said. "America will buy 'green' if all things are equal," he said.

In the case of the office furniture industry, which accounts for 75 percent of its sales, Guilford of Maine and Interface's philosophy is headed in the desired direction. The major office furniture makers based in West Michigan all have environmental stewardship built into their corporate policies, business models and manufacturing processes, particularly through the use of as much recycled, recyclable and compostable materials as possible.

Industry leaders Herman Miller, Haworth Inc. and Steelcase Inc. have all earned recognition over the years for environmentally friendly and sustainable corporate policies and manufacturing practices.

A growing number of corporations are enacting similar corporate policies, leading to increased business opportunities for companies like Guilford of Maine, LaCroix said.

"It's a movement. It's exploding in the marketplace," LaCroix said, enthusiastically promoting the role corporations can and, he believes, should play in environmental stewardship.

"Commerce is the most pervasive and powerful force on the planet. It is primarily responsible for the environmental degradation we're experiencing and therefore we should leverage commerce to solve them," he said. "We can't underestimate the market demand for this. It's going to be increasingly important to our industry."

To that end, Guilford of Maine is working on a next generation of fabric produced from bio-based materials, LaCroix said.           

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