11/13/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

It's a Simple Sustainable Brand, Stupid

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy's carnage, Paul Barrett wrote a simple, plain-spoken indictment of U.S. inaction on climate change. The story made Bloomberg Businessweek's cover the same week Michael Bloomberg threw his support behind President Obama -- in Bloomberg's eyes, the only candidate who would do something, anything to counter North America's spiral of climate inaction.

What's significant about this bold statement is that it was made during a presidential campaign where both Obama and Romney refused to take a stand on climate change, fearful it might make them vulnerable to attack (despite two-thirds of Americans believing climate change is real, and caused by humans).

I believe Barrett's/Bloomberg's bold stand was a memorable and hopeful moment in an otherwise depressingly cynical election season. And I believe Mr. Bloomberg and Co.'s brand will earn a place in history for it.

Any company looking to build a futureproof brand should study this event carefully. Sustainability is a key pillar of brand survival. And companies that challenge both the world and themselves by throwing down the gauntlet are winning the admiration of consumers soured by doubletalk and bafflegab.

Interface. Still On 'Simple Sustainable Brand' Track

In 1994, Ray Anderson of carpet company Interface had an epiphany after reading Paul Hawken's Ecology of Commerce. As Anderson said, the book's 'death of birth' warning pierced him like the tip of a spear, and helped him catalyse Interface's sustainable transformation.

Interface's journey is a case study of a simple, sustainable brand mission. Anderson's vision to protect the environment while boosting the bottom line set a template for companies like Wal-Mart to follow. 'Mission Zero' and other initiatives were ambitious and comprehensive, yet easy to understand. The company challenged itself with clear, unequivocal goals, inspiring both employees and customers.

Today, the brand is thriving. In conversation with Majken Bulow, Interface's European Product Sustainability Manager, I got a better picture of how Anderson's simple, sustainable brand continues to thrive today.

Complex Solutions. Simple Vision.

Bulow, who is speaking on best practices for engaging sustainability into product design at Sustainable Brands' inaugural London conference this month, said Anderson's vision of environmental and social sustainability are still very much alive.

"In every area of our company -- including design -- we've applied Mission Zero," she relates. "After solving the 'lowest hanging fruit' problems in our own manufacturing, we moved on to more challenging, and extremely interesting design challenges, addressing the full life cycle of our products and finding ways to use old products as raw materials for new products."

Today, Interface is focusing on issues like yarn, the source of a whopping 45 percent of carpet's environmental impact. Using innovations like Microtuft they have managed to reduce the yarn per carpet tile by as much as 50 percent -- while maintaining similar performance. In addition, the company has introduced products with 100 percent recycled nylon yarn, and is now working on bio-based nylon made from castor oil.

Bulow believes the Mission Zero culture has created a ripple effect, inspiring product design innovation in areas tangential to sustainability. "We use biomimicry in our carpet tile designs, for example. These random designs are self-contained in each tile, but create a harmonious effect as a whole. Not only does this create a completely unique, pleasing effect on floors, but it eliminates the need to line up patterns and waste carpet."

Key To A Simple Sustainable Brand: Clarity and Consistency

Bulow believes a clear sustainability mission with unwavering commitment pays dividends. "Ironically, we've been able to deal with financial crises more effectively through the years because of our commitment to eco-efficiency and eco-innovation."

Executing on this vision comes with challenges, especially once the lowest-hanging-fruit goals have been reached. But companies like Interface have impacted the priorities of an entire industry, and captured the loyalty of more customers, because of their commitment to building a sustainable brand. Simple, really.