The Factory as Forest

Georgia forest / Wikipedia
Georgia forest / Wikipedia

“Our goal is to achieve zero negative environmental impacts by 2020,” said Erin Meezan, vice president at Interface, an innovative producer of carpets and textiles, at Greenbuild in Los Angeles. But as the firm nears its goal, it’s now pursuing an even more ambitious vision — the “factory as forest,” in which their manufacturing facilities become positive contributors to the environment, providing as much ecosystem service benefits as their surrounding landscape.

This astonishing vision comes from Interface’s deceased founder Ray Anderson and Janine Benyus, whose firm, Biomimicry 3.8, is advising them. Benyus’ guiding idea: “When the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we’ve embedded sustainability.” To achieve this, she calls for using biomimetic design strategies that “consciously emulate nature’s designs.” This is because nature, with 3.8 billion years of evolution, has “already solved most challenges.”

Interface plans to move past their current model, which includes “reducing negative impacts to zero; using recycled, closed-loop materials; producing low-carbon products; and creating a sustainable supply chain” — goals akmost any firm would view as almost unreachable accomplishments.

Under their new model post-2020, they intend to go beyond simply doing no-harm and become a positive contributor to the environment and society through their manufacturing.

For example, they have reached out to fishing communities in Philippines to set up centers were used, torn nylon fishing nets can be collected. Interface will then recycle and incorporate these into their products. “Communities negatively impacted by ghost nets will be paid to collect nets for us,” creating rippling benefits beyond the product.

Nicole Miller, managing director at Biomimicry 3.8, further explained how her firm will help Interface redesign their facilities to be restorative entities that mimic nearby ecosystems. She said there are three primary ways to integrate this novel approach: first, by “changing the company’s mindset and setting an ambitious north star”; second, using the surrounding ecosystems as a reference to set performance goals; and, third, by developing design concepts rooted in specific site details. “The ecological habitats next door become the guidance benchmarks.”

To redesign Interface’s factory in LaGrange, Georgia, they must understand the surrounding reference ecosystem they will measure performance against — the Southern Outer Piedmont ecosystem. Miller said Biomimicry 3.8 will carefully examine all aspects of how this ecosystem functions in order to set measurable goals. They will look at the amounts of carbon sequestered, water stored and purified, sediment retained, pollination supported, pollution detoxified, biodiversity supported, and soil fertility enhanced by the system.

“Ecological services are the entry point.” But Miller’s team will then further dig into the metrics to inform the design. For example, should a manufacturing facility really mimic the carbon functions of a forest, which releases carbon in some months and sequesters more in other months?

In the future, Interface want to bring this ecosystem-driven approach to design into the product themselves too: they seek to create products that sequester carbon, that require them to pull carbon out of the atmosphere to produce the material.

Also in this session: James Connelly, director of the living product challenge at the International Living Future Institute announced some of the first few products that have been certified as having restorative social and environmental effects, such as office furniture by HumanScale, which has no toxic chemicals and was created through 100 percent renewable energy, as well as new skateboards and sunglasses by Bureo, which are made of plastics harvested from the ocean. His group is now working with Patagonia to create a “restorative supply chain.”

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