Interviewed June 2007
Lindsay James is the Manager of Sustainable Strategy for the commercial flooring division of Interface and a 2003 MBA alumna of UNC Kenan-Flagler.
In her position with InterfaceFLOR, Lindsay is responsible for translating the company's sustainability leadership into the marketplace. Much of Lindsay's time is spent educating Interface's clients, sales force, and employees about the sustainability of its products and practices. Lindsay has addressed over 1,000 people in classes and speeches this year alone-challenging the way people think about the consequences of their actions and urging them to recognize their market power and use it in a conscious way. Commenting on the future growth of sustainable business and markets, she says, "We are at an exciting and pivotal time in the world of sustainable business. In order to continue this momentum, businesses need to realize the profit potential behind sustainable business strategies-and consumers need sustainable products that don't sacrifice quality (or value) for 'green'."
When asked why she thought more companies don't follow Interface's example to incorporate sustainability, she replied, "There's a perception that sustainability is costly. While there might be initial upfront costs, there are huge long-term payoffs when sustainability is appropriately integrated throughout the organization. To gain substantial returns on investments in sustainability, there must be a cultural shift in the company. This shift inspires innovation at all levels in the company-meaning more innovation can be generated across the company than one sustainability champion would ever be able to create."
Truly, Interface is seeing the payoffs of sustainability in increased competitive advantage through decreased costs and increased revenue as well as in the culture sustainability has created. Lindsay cites increased innovation in both product design and operations and increased workforce engagement (Interface has the lowest turnover rate in the industry) as benefits of this culture. As Lindsay says, "Interface's workers are on the cutting edge of an industrial revolution and they are excited by that. As a result, our people apply their creativity to the job, and this gives us a huge advantage in today's marketplace."
Growing up in North Carolina, Lindsay developed a passion for nature which was occasionally at odds with the effects she saw in her family's business of commercial real estate development where business often progressed at the expense of the environment. After some defining moments, Lindsay decided that she would do what she could to improve the condition of the world through her career.
To that end, Lindsay earned a BA in Economics and Biology from UNC-Chapel Hill and then worked for several years at RTI International doing cost-benefit analysis of environmental legislation and environmental benchmarking. Through her experience working there, Lindsay realized that affecting change through governmental policy was difficult and required extreme patience.
After reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, Lindsay adopted Hawken's argument that, while business is responsible for much of the environmental degradation we see, it is also the most powerful, innovative, and pervasive institution on the planet and therefore has tremendous capacity to create positive change. It was then that she decided to pursue an MBA and chose to attend UNC Kenan-Flagler specifically for its Sustainable Enterprise program.
She values the business education she gained from UNC Kenan-Flagler, which now lends her credibility with the business leaders she meets. Lindsay also appreciated the diverse interests of her classmates at Kenan-Flagler which gave her greater perspective and ability to make the case for sustainability, saying, "the students were so open-minded: we challenged each other to look at both sides of an argument… that has helped me when talking to people who do not agree with sustainability." Now her peers have become a great resource to Lindsay as a network in which she can vet ideas and pose the hard questions she encounters. Beyond this, she credits the Kenan-Flagler network with helping her land her current position at Interface.
The road that brought Lindsay to her dream job at Interface was anything but straight. As she looks back, Lindsay remembers wondering if she would ever realize her goal of positively impacting the world through her career. The job market was lean when she graduated from Kenan-Flagler in 2003, and Lindsay went to work in real estate acquisitions and later, economic consulting for Analysis Group, Inc. While these positions were not sustainability-related, they helped Lindsay understand business better and that experience has been incredibly valuable in her position at Interface.
Lindsay offers this advice to those struggling to break into the sustainability field—"We can all integrate sustainability into our everyday actions (at work and home) and affect change at many levels. If you're not working directly in sustainability, don't give up. Keep your eye on your long-term goals and remember that non-sustainability jobs will reinforce your education and provide insights into how the world really works. This in turn will help you figure out how to move towards how the world should work." Now, Lindsay feels fortunate to be working in her own way to bridge that gap.
Sustainability Book Recommendations:
- For a philosophical approach: Paul Hawken and David Suzuki, Blessed Unrest and The Sacred Balance, respectively.
- For guidance on implementing sustainability in a business: Chris Laszlo's The Sustainable Company and Green to Gold by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston.
- Finally, I read Grist, Treehugger, and Joel Makower's blog regularly.
Nominee for Sustainability Superstar:
Ray Anderson has been my sustainability hero since my time at RTI, and he is my sustainability hero even more so now that I know Interface from an insider's perspective. As Paul Hawken says in his new book, "More than any other CEO in the country, Ray Anderson has taken to heart the necessity of completely transforming an industrial company so that it not only is sustainable, but takes steps to restore what damage has been done in the past." His vision is phenomenal, his leadership is unparalleled, and I am certain history will recognize Ray Anderson as the leader of the industrial sustainability revolution.