Interview with Erin Meezan, Interface

Web 2.0 is the term we use to describe the changing way that businesses, consumers and software developers are using the internet.  In today’s marketplace, companies are turning to social media tools to educate consumers, sell products and elevate their brands and reputation.  Over the last three years several companies have launched Web 2.0 initiatives and virtual communities to connect more directly with and influence consumers.  Pepperidge Farm created the Art of the Cookie, Waste Management designed and launched Greenopolis among many others.  This month, Interface, Inc., the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer, will launch Mission Zero, an online community that addresses sustainability.  IGEL had a chance to talk with Erin Meezan, Interface Inc.’s Vice President of Sustainability, about Mission Zero.

 What has been Interface’s process of thinking about and getting involved in Web 2.0?

 For us it was really about scale – we aren’t doing anything different on this site that we weren’t already doing with our customers and stakeholders – sharing information, making connections around sustainability – providing inspiration and feedback on their journeys – but we liked the thought of expanding that conversation to a much bigger and diverse group of people.  We know that we may have inspired some others to take on the challenge of sustainability and we’re excited about the potential to inspire, teach, connect with and learn from a whole new group of people around sustainability.

We’re really hoping to expand the conversations we’ve been having with our customers and stakeholders around sustainability and business issues to a whole new and broader audience.  For years we’ve been a source of info for our customers on how to start sustainability in their businesses and lives – and this is an effort to share that knowledge.

And in terms of why this issue, why these features and why did we design Mission Zero – we’re very attached the idea of a journey to zero footprint – it has been a rallying cry for Interface that has resonated with our associates, our customers – and we like the idea of there being many thousands of other Mission Zero journeys.  We built this largely because we didn’t think there was anything like this centered on sustainability – a place where you not only get news, but can connect with other individuals and groups already on the journey, a place where you could ask questions of the community and a place where you could determine what the community becomes.  One thing I love about it is that there is not an e-commerce component – so many of these sites are awash in online ads and any sort of green product you can imagine – Mission Zero is not going to be a place to sell green stuff.


 Which stakeholders contributed to developing Mission Zero?

 During the design phase of this community we discussed it conceptually with customers, key stakeholders like NGO organizations we work with – all were excited about the need for this type of place – and we also worked with an outside design firm to review existing online communities and identify key strengths and features that made them successful and incorporated those features into Mission Zero – the ability to establish a profile, the ability to ask the community questions, the ability to take action and become part of a mission.  We also went to others we have working relationships – other companies pursuing sustainability – NGOs – and key customers and invited them to be “partners” to use the site during beta and give us critical feedback on design and functionality.  The site is now in beta and we’ll continue to receive feedback from these partners and site visitors on what they like and what works.


 What are some of the challenges of using the Web 2.0 world to communicate with stakeholders?

 The best part is that the web enables you to connect with a much bigger and broader audience and interact more directly with them.  The challenge here is sometimes the volume and the character of the interaction with the audience is a challenge –  in this format individuals are encouraged to communicate directly and without many restrictions,  which means what you get from them varies greatly from wonderful insight all the way to inane or irrelevant info, and critical remarks – it can be very hard to discern whether or not the communications are relevant – and it can be hard to address particular concerns of individuals in this format – all of these variables make it a challenge for companies to really embrace this type of communication. 

 There are still tools that need to be developed to better enable this form of communication and help communities behave and interact with one another online  – Ebay has done a good job of coming up with a way to rank participants in their online community by assigning them ratings based on the feedback of other community members – they allow the community to rank the members of the community based on their behavior. Similar tools like this could aid companies looking to use the Web 2.0 world to communicate. Companies sometimes find it difficult to allow for the kind of open dialogue that these communities allow – absent these types of systems and in the interim will have to assume a little more risk, and let go a little.  At Interface I think we acknowledge that companies communicate differently than individuals do and we acknowledge some of the risks inherent in these types of communities – they may be critical of us, but at the same time, we have a great window into our customers, a great source of energy and ideas from outside the company that we feel far outweighs any challenges.


Can you explain how Mission Zero works and how it is different from other environmental websites? 

Mission Zero works to serve three main purposes:  educating, inspiring and empowering the people who visit it – educating them through news, case studies and partners who provide stories and links to what they are doing on sustainability – inspiration by connecting members to others on the journey to hear their stories and successes and empowering by allowing them to volunteer actions and get the community to respond and join their Missions. 

 I think this last piece makes it really unique – it allows you to band together with others in your office, industry, neighborhood to actually make a change.  Most sites out there are merely providing information, but not really trying to engage online audiences – Mission Zero, is a different place, it does provide news and information on all things sustainability – but its meant to be an interactive community- where people can ask questions on sustainability of the members, a place where you can meet and connect with likeminded companies and individuals and a place for them to become inspired to go on their own missions to sustainability.


How will Interface market Mission Zero?

I think what is interesting here is how we won’t market it – we don’t plan to hire a huge ad agency to get a bunch of people to visit the site –  in a sense we’ll introduce it to the people we think will really use it - we plan through our beta to introduce this community to our key stakeholders, starting with our own associates, then adding our customers, our stakeholders, NGOs, government people, our friends at other companies working hard on sustainability – then, after we run the beta, we’ll go from there.


Can you explain the different stages of development for Web 2.0 and how the beta phase fits in?

To us, the beta phase will be critical – it is the first time that we show all of our work to users and get their feedback on what works and what doesn’t – it is a phase that you build in after the development is mostly done to allow yourself to really test all of the features, and get feedback from users on what to change, what add and possibly what to remove.  For Mission Zero, it was important for us to launch with what we call “founding partners”, these are organizations, companies and customers groups that we work closely with on sustainability issues.  Their feedback and thoughts about the site are absolutely critical – so we got them involved early to help us test out Mission Zero.


How will Mission Zero help benefit Interface’s sustainability goals in the long-run?

We think it will help Interface achieve it’s own sustainability goals specific to the company – zero environmental footprint – by providing a place where our employees can connect and learn about all things sustainability.  But in a broader sense Interface has goals beyond just its own sustainable business – we want to influence others to take up their own sustainable journeys and help them along they way – we think this is a fabulous place for those learnings and connections to happen – many of our early partners are suppliers, customers and others directly linked to our business.

Additionally, we’ve always pledged that in addition to reducing our own footprint, we’d like to become a restorative enterprise, one that not only reduces our impacts, but that goes a step further to have a net positive impact – because we’re quite a small company – the best way for us to achieve this is through the power of our influence and our ability to convince others to pursue sustainability based on the value to brings to the bottom line – this is a perfect place to do that.


Have sustainable practices benefited Interface’s business in the past? 

There is no doubt that our focus on sustainability has had numerous, quanitifiable benefits to our business.  Initially, the focus to waste less, and become more efficient saved us millions of dollars in wasted costs – a direct benefit to the bottom line.  Since we started tracking in 1996 – we’ve measured over $400 million in cumulative costs avoided.

Sustainability has proven to be a galvanizing force for our associates, by giving them the sense that this company is about more than just making carpet, it is giving them a sense of purpose that allows us to retain associates longer and allows us to attract more talented candidates.  AND the goodwill of the marketplace in response to our sustainability is FAR beyond what we could accomplish by putting the dollars into advertising.

Sustainability has also been a source of innovation for our product designers giving us a competitive edge in the marketplace – the use of biomimicry – or asking ourselves how nature would design flooring - led to design ideas that we never would uncovered without the focus on sustainability.


What valuable takeaways has Interface gained from conversations with customers in the past?   

Customers were really the reason we focused on sustainability in the mid-1990’s – we kept hearing this question from our customers – “What is Interface doing for the environment?”  And we didn’t have a great answer – beyond “ we obey the laws”.  So, this question from our customers led us to create a task force, forced the inspiration and epiphany of our founder and CEO and, ultimately, led us down an amazing path that has fundamentally changed the course of our company, and our industry.

On Mission Zero, anyone can login to ask and answer questions.  How will Interface ensure that information provided does not deceive customers or “greenwash”?

In one sense this is very easy for us – the community will provide the content, ideas and the community will decide the most credible answers.  As with any community – there is always a balance because we are just providing the forum for discussions, questions and learning – we can’t control every answer – we wouldn’t want to – then this would be just another corporate website – the best we can do is be a sort of moderator to make sense the discussions, questions, thoughts and opinions shared are still within the realm of sustainability, but beyond that, we let the community decide who is the most credible, and who is not. – the community will police the credibility of the answers and information, not Interface. 


What is the most exciting feature of the site?

To me, as a professional in charge of implementing sustainability – it is the Questions and Answers feature – the ability to ask a hundred, a thousands people interested in sustainability how we might move even closer to sustainability at Interface is a huge benefit – I have a core group of people here in the company, and in the govt, with NGOs and other companies – that I vet ideas with, discuss new ideas – but this could expand that universe and draw on perspectives that we currently can’t access – really one of the most positive features of the Web – linking us to others to make change – that’s a really powerful idea.


To what extent do you expect  Mission Zero to benefit your company’s bottom line? 

The quick answer here is that the site is about something bigger than generating revenue – it is not structured to sell carpet or provide a revenue source for the company - I think there will be tangible benefits and intangible benefits.  But the benefits are more around knowledge sharing and growth, connectedness, positioning Interface as a leader, improving our brand and recognition in this space.


How will Interface measure the success of Mission Zero? 

Like any conventional site, we have metrics in place to judge things like site traffic, number of visitors, unique visits and how long members spend on the site – but there will also be intangible things like do we feel like it is succeeding in educating and connecting others around the issue of sustainability.

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2 Comments

If you're looking for Mission Zero, you can find it at http://MissionZero.org.

Also, check out the iTunes store for the Mission Zero iPhone app.

Wharton and Penn already have a connection to Mission Zero. The site was developed with the help of http://digitalscientists.com (a company founded and managed by me - WG'92)

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Save the Date: IGEL's 4th Annual Conference-Workshop on Valuing Water: Business Challenges & Opportunities for Innovation

Fourth Annual Conference-Workshop


Save the Date

March 22, 2011
World Water Day
8th Floor Colloquium
Jon M. Huntsman Hall
The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
3730 Walnut Street, Philadelphia

Topic: Valuing Water: Business Challenges & Opportunities for Innovation

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