Four years ago, Interface Inc. Founder and CEO Ray Anderson made a decision that rocked the business world. The LaGrange, Ga.-based industrial giant, a top manufacturer of commercial carpet with 26 factories on four continents, vowed to make itself the first fully sustainable company in the world. His decision affected every aspect of the company's operations: Interface would no longer produce its carpets from virgin wool but rather from textile from its own recycled carpets, would use energy from renewable sources, and would cut out all waste.
The decision also had implications for the company's meetings, to the point where the company basically designed its 25th anniversary celebration around this environmental mission. "One World, One Family: A Celebration" was held in April 1996 at the Grand Wailea Resort in Maui, Hawaii for 1,100 people, among them employees, supplier-partners, and about 100 special guests--people connected to what Chief Operating Officer Charlie Eitel calls Interface's "environmental revolution."
The gathering was a model for the way in which Interface carefully tied every meeting detail into its mission. This past January, Meeting Professionals International awarded Interface and its partner, Strategic Events International (see related story on page 27), the Global Paragon Award, its highest meeting-planning honor.
How it all began Initially, Interface's "Dream Team," a group of advisors on the environment that Anderson keeps on retainer (among them Amory Lovins, vice chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute; Paul Hawken, who wrote "The Ecology of Commerce"; and David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club) didn't even want to hold an anniversary celebration, especially at a hotel that they considered to be the opposite of Interface's corporate message.
To counter this, "We wound up 'using' the hotel, for lack of a better word, as a classroom," says Eitel. Throughout the week Interface was on property, they asked attendees to conserve in different ways: by re-using towels, for example, or using specially provided room amenities that are less harmful to the environment.The goal, says Eitel, was "to teach the attendees what we call 'The Power of One': what would be the consequences of their actions if everyone conserved."
It's all in the details The details of Interface's meeting are no less than extraordinary. Food and beverage choices, promotional pieces, and room gifts all tied into the global and environmental themes. Carefully chosen entertainers and speakers included John Denver and Kenny Loggins; keynote speaker Terry Waite; and Ken Krage, who wrote "We Are the World" and "Hands Across America." Members of the Dream Team also spoke throughout the meeting.
Then there was the Legacy Wall, a 150-foot-long wall on which the company placed Polaroids of all the attendees and left spaces for them to write their own legacies. "What evolved throughout the week was the notion that we wanted to do something for the children of Hawaii," says Eitel. So the company started a fundraising initiative, the Ho'oKupu Trust, led by Anderson, who pledged $50,000, and DuPont (an Interface supplier), who matched that. Every attendee pledged $100.
"The idea was for people to consider how the meeting had changed their lives and what they'd do differently when they got home," says Eitel.
The final night, people received white Patagonia shirts to wear. (The manufacturer, another Interface partner, also waived the profits from the sale of the shirts and contributed them to the trust.). The organizers had all 1,100 attendees form a circle with an "I" in it, then had a photograph of the group shot by helicopter. The photo was distributed to everyone when they checked out, along with a video of the event. Of course, the bag that these were put in was made of environmentally correct hemp.
MeetingThough it's now two years since the meeting's end, Eitel says he's still seeing the results of its unforgettable message. "We call it 'Post-Hawaii Success Syndrome,' " he says. "It took us a long time to get over the power and emotion of that meeting."
The success is tangible as well. "Sales for the following year went up 13 percent, and we were selected by Fortune magazine as one of the Best 100 Companies to work for. It's the first time we've ever been nominated. Then Fortune chose us as one of America's Most-Admired Companies--the highest-ranking company in the textile group. We've never been nominated for that either.
"Our stock price was at $22 during this meeting and it closed at $33 3/8 in February ," he continues. "So it's up almost 80 percent since the meeting. Is it the economy or the meeting? I don't know, but the meeting was an incredible boost for the company, and there was a high level of productivity afterwards.
"It recharged people's lives--there's no doubt about that," Eitel concludes. "There's not a day that goes by in our company that it's not discussed."