Waste not, Want not.
By Katie Sosnowchik
A decade ago, C & A Floorcoverings embarked on a journey
that has since led to the concept of mining buildings instead
of the earth. This approach has not only placed its environmental
achievements front-and-center in an industry known for its
fiercely competitive nature, it has also proved to be an enormously
sound business strategy as well. By using waste material as
the raw material for the commercial carpet it makes, CEO Mac
Bridger says C & A has become living proof
that what's good for the environment is also very good business
Cover Story Articles
Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than four billion
pounds of carpet will go into landfills across America this year,
accounting for about two percent of total landfill refuse. To get
a visual picture, imagine rolling all that discarded carpet out
in a six-foot-wide stripthen wrap it around the world 14 times.
These staggering statistics provide insight into the story of how
and why one leading carpet mill, C & A Floorcoverings, has turned
to old carpet as valuable feedstock in the manufacture
of new carpet, specifically carpet tiles used in commercial
buildings. Getting to this point, though, meant ending a 29-year
history of producing virgin modular carpet tiles, a tough sell back
in the early 1990s when C & A was part of a large textile conglomerate.
But in 1997, the Dalton, GA-based commercial carpet division was
sold in a leveraged-buyout transaction. Many of its strides in the
environmental arena have occurred since then, as well as its whole-hearted
embrace of the triple bottom line theory of sustainable development.
|More than 10 years ago, C & A began to
consider the possibility of recycling old carpet into new. The
goal was to create a true closed-loop recycling system for floor
covering. The process involves 10 quantifiable steps:
| Must bring back any product made.
Must use 100 percent of the recovered material.
Must recycle material back into floor covering.
Must have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.
Must have at least equal performance to the original.
| Must be price equivalent.
Must have comparable aesthetics.
Must capture all embodied energy.
Must create products that are also 100 percent
Must have a commercially operational program.
Public companies have so much pressure on them to produce
quarterly earnings. In the years since we have been a private company,
I have seen that it fosters more entrepreneurialism and innovation,
Other factors have also come into play. The carpet industry was
an early target for environmental activists, not only because of
the landfill issuecarpet is basically non-biodegradablebut
also because of concerns regarding indoor air quality and the impact
of carpet-related VOCs on the health and safety of building occupants.
There was also increasing debate regarding the use and impact of
PVC in commercial carpet.
The result is that the carpet industry was in a hot seat,
so to speak. The situation was further complicated because of intense
competitiona few large players vying for increased market
shareand magnified by the fact that 80 percent of the U.S.
carpet market is supplied by mills located within a 65-mile radius
Various carpet manufacturers have taken different routes in their
environmental stewardship efforts. C & A turned to one of the
associated problemsthe landfill issueto explore possible
solutions. Today, through a closed loop process that reclaims and
converts used carpet, C & As patented ER3 100-percent
recycled carpet backing is now used on all of the modular carpet
tile it sells. The face of the carpet tile also utilizes recycled
content: between 31 to 50 percent dependent upon style. It carries
the same price and a 15-year, non-prorated warranty as its previous
This translates into impressive numbers when you consider that C
& A sells more than $200 million of carpet.
Since the leveraged buyout, C & A has acquired Monterey Carpets
in California and Crossley Carpet Mills in Canadathe new parent
is now known as the Tandus Group. (Bridger serves as chairman of
the Tandus Group and president/CEO of C & A Floorcoverings.)
And while these acquisitions have helped C & A further its financial
objectives, they have not come without challenges. In fact, as C
& A continues its acquisition course in the future, Bridger
acknowledges that it has to get better at integrating acquisitions
into our sustainability matrix, he says. When we bring
different cultures in, the fact of the matter is that they are not
going to be at the same point we are after a decade of doing this.
He also looks to the issue of identifying the next best polymer
as a future challenge, as well as the investigation of renewable
materials. The whole concept of reinvention is important.
If you continue to stay where you are, ultimately you will lose
your competitive advantage, Bridger says. So we spend
a lot of time at the senior level of our company thinking about
Bridger recently sat down with green@work to talk about C &
A Floorcoverings journey into sustainability: where it has
been, where it is today and where it will lead in the future.
WHEN DID C & AS SUSTAINABILITY JOURNEY BEGIN?
BRIDGER: The journey beganalbeit
unknowinglyin 1987 when we invented a product called Powerbond
RS that eliminated wet glues in the installation process, which
had a dramatic effect on indoor air quality. At the time, we viewed
it as an installation system, but as we look back on it now, it
was a wonderful environmental product as it solved indoor air quality
issues associated with sick building syndrome and building-related
Our focus on recycling started in the early 1990s, and it was principally
driven by our customers. We host mill tours and educational events
for end-users as well as design professionals and we began to hear
a recurring theme: What were we doing with our product waste? What
happens to our product after its useful life? Those questions led
us to think that if we could come up with a solution to waste, then
it would be something that our customers would want to buy and specifytherefore
giving us a competitive advantage. That was when the light bulb
turned on for us.
WHAT ARE THE UNIQUE ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES FOR A CARPET MANUFACTURER?
BRIDGER: One of the key things
is technology. Its one thing to say you want to be environmentally
friendly, that you want to create a sustainable company with a sustainable
product, but its clear the biggest challenge is technology.
In our case, I think another challenge was convincing our parent
company that it should invest millions of dollars in a concept that
went against their core thinking. I think managing the parent was
certainly a challengeto get the approval to move forward.
Another challenge for us was in the area of cultureI am convinced
you cant be successful by sending out memos and making a speech.
You really have to ingrain a culture of environmental responsibility
throughout the organization. When you are dealing with hundreds
of people, its a huge challenge. I am not going to suggest
that every single person embraced the culture. But the key peoplethe
people who were going to help us develop this technology to recycle
carpetthey understood what we were doing and why we were doing
it. We would never have been successful without that.
C & A advocates the principle of a Shared
Circle of Responsibilitysm where specifiers, manufacturers and
clients work together. The basic premise is simple: Designers
need to specify, clients should buy and manufacturers are obligated
to develop the right technology and environmentally responsible
products. If this system fails, then a sustainable future will
WHAT STEPS WERE REQUIRED IN THE TRANSFORMATION?
BRIDGER: We felt we had to set
short-term goals and achieve those goals. Then we set new goals.
There is a utopian vision and a practical one. We chose the practical
oneits great to say, I want to have zero waste
and zero emissions, but how are you going to get there? I
think success in our case was realized by setting realistic, attainable
goals, celebrating victory when we made those small steps and then
taking the next steps. The process we went through in developing
the recycling technology took millions and millions of dollarsprobably
$12 to $15 millionand years of work.
Another challenge was the concept of being able to make an environmentally
responsible product that the customer will buy. If we were to make
carpet from paper, but it didnt meet our customers performance
requirements, they wouldnt buy it and that really wouldnt
be very sustainable. So the challenge was to balance technology
with products that performperformance is life cycle, performance
is how it looks, how it cleans. Professional designers are not going
to specify a product that doesnt meet certain requirements.
Another element is cost. We said early in the process that we were
not going to market with a green product and say, Its
going to cost you $3 more because we have this investment and we
have to get paid back. Thats a pretty tough challenge
to balance product performance and environmental responsibility
and do it at the same cost as your virgin product.
We could have been in the marketplace in the early 1990s waving
a flag because we had made a birdhouse or a park bench out of recycled
carpet, but we simply werent going to do that until we were
certain we had a commercially viable product. Our objective has
always been to make carpet out of carpet.
WHY IS THE CARPET INDUSTRY SO COMPETITIVE IN ITS ENVIRONMENTAL
BRIDGER: I think that increased
awareness of environmental issues has made this a top-of-mind issue.
Given that you have customers saying this is what they want, and
the fact that there are a number of manufacturers vying for that
businessit creates a competitive atmosphere. If you cant
commit to a customer that you have a product, then you cant
This can also be a problem because, as a result, theres been
a lot of greenwash (companies that make claims that
simply are not supportable). This is very damaging to the processit
creates a lot of confusion in the marketplace in the eyes of the
building owners as well as design professionals. Competition is
good in that it can create fundamental change. But if its
not based on truth and integrity and accuracy, it can also create
a lot of confusion.
DIFFERENT MANUFACTURERS HAVE TAKEN VARIOUS APPROACHES TO DEVELOPING
GREEN PRODUCTS. YOURS HAS BEEN TO MINE BUILDINGS INSTEAD OF NATURAL
BRIDGER: It really goes back to the genesis concept of
creating our recycling technology. Its a massive extrusion
processwe affectionately call the equipment Big Moand
Big Mo consumes lots of carpet. When we first starting scaling the
machinery up, we would use our plant waste to meet the needs of
production. But as we standardized all of our carpet tiletoday
all of our carpet has recycled content backingour needs became
greater and we had to have access to more raw materialsthis
is feedstock for us. So when we realized that we didnt have
the internal capacity to produce enough waste to feed this thing,
we had to go outside and aggressively reclaim ours or our competitors
material to feed our needs. And it made sense because it helps the
customer, it fills our need for raw materials and its good
for the environment.
HOW SUCCESSFUL HAS C & A BEEN IN MEETING GOALS?
BRIDGER: Our strategy of taking
a lot of shorter steps means we have been able to meet many goals.
I dont think in my lifetime we will meet the ultimate goal
of sustainability. So we have not achieved all of our goals, but
we have been successful, and we have done what many said could not
be done, and its had a very dramatic impact on our company
in terms of revenue and earnings. This is not about charity; it
happens to be that whats right for the environment is also
very good business sense. I think we are living proof of that because
we are doing something thats very good for the environment,
it has given us a competitive advantage in the market, its
gained us new customers, and our company is growing at double-digit
rates these last 10 yearsin an industry that is typically
at two or three percent. Our environmental programs and successes
without question have contributed to that. By virtue of the fact
that we use waste material for feedstock means we actually lower
our raw material cost so we actually have a higher gross profit
on every square yard of carpet that we sell.
The path to sustainability, says C & A Floorcoverings,
will best be achieved through the intellect, cooperation and
dedication of a balanced cross section of society. With this
in mind, C & A has created the Sustainability Laboratory,
a group of individuals representing a broad spectrum of interests:
environment and conservation, science and human health, education,
architecture and new construction, social and cultural organizations,
business, manufacturing, government and interior design. Its
mission is to explore diverse perspectives and ideas concerning
sustainability and its challenges. The Sustainability Laboratory
is a forum for sharing, learning and developing answers. Its
focus addresses issues of social equity, environmental accountability
and economic performance.
HOW DO YOU ANSWER CRITICS WHO LOBBY AGAINST ANY USE OF PVC?
BRIDGER: There are two issues
here. One is what we are doing and the other is how we view PVC.
I will tell you, as I intellectually look at the PVC discussion,
I think its important to say that PVC todayparticularly
in the way PVC resin is manufacturedhas come light years since
the 1960s. If you take the PVC process today, there is a tremendous
amount of science that will directly contradict and refute what
is being said by activists. This debate is a reasonable debate to
have, its a fair debate to have. Unfortunately its an
emotional issue because you are talking about health and safety
issues. Some arguments are not only about PVC, but all plastics.
Yet there is no other product that we know of that provides a 30-year
useful life. When you talk about sustainability, where does life
cycle enter into the concept? The technological merit of this product
as a floor covering material is without reproach. But based on todays
technology, this is the best balance between reducing our environmental
footprint and achieving performance.
When you listen to this debate, what you hear is people talking
about the issues of production of PVC and the disposal of PVC. What
we are doing is responsibly managing PVC. We can reclaim and recycle
all of the PVC products ever made in the floor coverings business.
We have the capacity to recycle all of this material so that it
is never disposed of. Because of this vinyl technology, we can provide
customers with high performance products that look better and last
longer. We have zero manufacturing waste in our facilitieszeronot
low, zero. We are using 100 percent of this material; none of it
goes to landfill or is incinerated or waste-to-energy incinerated.
We are using less energy today then we were before we were recycling.
And its because of this technology. If you take this technology
away, what are you going to replace it with? A product that has
a three-year life cycle? How is that a positive environmental footprint?
Its just not. So I think we need to look at this issue on
the basis of reality as opposed to emotion. But C & A is determined
to be the first company in our industry to develop the next generation
polymer that will provide an optimum environmental footprint and
HAVE VENDORS COME ON BOARD WITH ENVIRONMENTAL EFFORTS?
BRIDGER: Absolutely. In fact,
some short stories illustrate that. When we first started this process,
one of the first things we did was to evaluate all of the elements
of our raw materials. You cant make an environmentally responsible
product by using environmentally irresponsible raw materials. So
we began in the early 90s to conduct vendor audits, which
set very strict environmental parameterswe wanted the most
benign raw materials. In one of our tests, we found a chemical level
that did not meet our standards. So we turned the tanker truck around.
That vendor today will tell you that our audit process made it a
better company; it forced them to rethink and rework their processes
to meet our criteria.
DuPont is another example. We have an exchange program with the
DuPont Flooring Systems reclamation programthey have limited
use for carpet tile in their recycling, so broadloom that we take
in goes to their recycling; carpet tile that they take in comes
We are also working with DuPont and Universal Fibers on a fine denier
programa smaller fiber that allows us to make lower face weight
products, which has a dramatic impact on resource usage. And we
are working with other fiber companies, such as BASF, who is working
with Bill McDonough on the Savant program. We are going to be the
first carpet tile that uses the Savant fiber. So theres lots
of partners on the vendor side, lots of partners on the customer
side. For example, Mutual of Omaha has sent back a million square
feet of a competitors carpet tile. This technology gave us
the ability to supply the California EPA with a 50-percent recycled
content carpet for its headquarters in Sacramentoalmost 100,000
yards. So the government market is very big for us. We work very
closely with many Midwest statesMinnesota, Wisconsin and Iowaon
HOW HAVE YOU BENEFITTED FROM INVOLVEMENT WITH NGOS?
BRIDGER: Principally, its
learning and benchmarking. We came into this as neophytes in the
early 90s, and we still view ourselves as a learning company,
a learning organization. So, the more you are involved in these
organizationsalong with companies like McDonalds that
have strong positions on the environmentyou learn from them.
Theres also sharing, because we have done some pretty darn
good things. When we can share our experiences, our successes and
failuresthats a benefit, too. We think that our association
with various groups has been instrumental in our success.
HAVE YOU CONSIDERED LICENSING THE PATENTS FOR THE TECHNOLOGY
BRIDGER: We have talked about
it and have even drafted some documents. We have concluded, however,
that because of the competitive nature of our industry, we cant
quite see anyone willing to pay us for the technology. We have sent
out some feelers, but havent gotten much of a reception.
DO YOU THINK THAT THIS MIGHT CHANGE?
BRIDGER: I am hopeful that it
might. I think its going to take more consolidationa
couple more rounds of consolidation and well be there. Theres
not that many big companies leftso if you combine two or more
of these companies, then you will have something. But I dont
think anything will happen until thenits just too competitive.
YOU ADVOCATE A SHARED CIRCLE OF RESPONSIBILITY. HOW
SUCCESSFUL HAVE YOU BEEN AT RAISING AWARENESS FOR THIS CONCEPT?
BRIDGER: I think we have been
successful, although its difficult to say how successful.
Its a very intangible thing. We talk about it a lot. We have
put together some graphics that demonstrate it; we believe deeply
that even if you have the perfect environmental productif
there ever is such a thingif designers dont support
it with specifications and building owners dont support it
with purchasing those specsit will all die because it is a
circle of responsibility. It takes revenue and earnings to reinvest
in technologies. So we very much are locked, joined at the hip in
If we go back to the discussion about integrity and greenwashingif
you have this circle of responsibility, then it comes down to the
question: Who really has what I want to specify? There
has got to be a baseline for designers and end-users to know what
they are getting.
Manufacturers have to be accountable for what they are saying. To
dazzle a designer to write a spec around something that is not real
is wrong. So we have introduced two initiatives. First, we have
worked the FTC Guides for Environmental Marketing Claims into our
specifications. If you are not willing to conform to the Federal
Trade Commission Guides, then theres something wrong with
the picture. So we are out aggressively promoting the use of FTC
Guides as a standard, a baseline for accountability. The other thing
we have done is go to a third-party firm to certify our claims.
Scientific Certification Systems came in and did a complete audit
of our entire process to verify and certify that what we claim about
recycled content and recyclability is indeed true. We think this
is important to bring accountability to the table in order to minimize
the noise and confusion that currently exists.
|Mining Buildings, Not The Earth -
Through its Floore carpet buy-back program, C
& A purchases old vinyl-backed carpet and uses it as feedstock
to produce its high-performance carpets. Besides the environ-mental
benefits of less waste, reutilizing resources and reducing dependence
on non-renewable resources, C & As customers benefit
from the Floore program by turning disposal or landfill fees
into revenue from old carpets. To date, approximately 60 million
pounds of carpet have been diverted from the landfill and incineration
because of C & As recycling program.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE SUSTAINABILITY LABORATORY.
BRIDGER: It goes back to when
we started this long journey. It was clear to us that we did not
have all the answers. We were in the carpet making business, and
we knew we needed to bring together some of the brightest, most
informed individuals to help us with the process. It was also important
not just to bring together environmental scientists and environmental
activists, but a broad cross section of peoplepeople like
Stuart Hart from academia, Bob Berkebile from professional architecture,
Battelle representing science, as well as NGOs and business.
We also invited people from the social dimension. We didnt
want it to be a pure environmental group; we wanted it to focus
on sustainability, which includes the social dimension as well as
The purpose was really to create a sounding board. We wanted smart
people to give us a report card. We said, Let us show you
what were doing, what our plans are, what we think is the
right direction. Now you tell us how we are doing. Although
he did not take a formal seat on the laboratory, Bill McDonough
has visited our facility and I remember him saying something to
the effect that, If everyone in industry was doing what you
are doing, the world would be a better place. So thats
what the laboratory is: its a council, its a sounding
board. We always intended this to be a low-profile group; none of
us wanted to make this a public relations event, but rather a true
business guidance for us. We still have those relationships, exchanging
e-mails and having dialogue and we are due to have a meeting in
the near future. So the lab is about relationships and communication.
These people have been very, very helpful to us in forming our views
and still are.
WHO ARE YOUR MENTORS?
BRIDGER: The Sustainability
Lab certainly has had an impact. The outside person who has probably
affected our thinking the most would be John Elkington. We have
studied his writings, and we feel that the triple bottom linethe
new business metric that goes beyond financial to include social
and environmental considerationsbest characterizes who we
are: a company that has a sense of environmental responsibility;
a company that knows we have to make moneywe are in this for
business, so it has to be good for business so that we can reinvest
in new technologies. But very little is said about the third leg
of that stool, which is the social area. I think we have done a
tremendous amount over time in the area of social equity in our
company and in the community. Early on we established an in-house
GED program. On the surface, it may sound like everyone does that.
But what most people do is give someone money and they go off to
a community college after work and get their GED. But we have single
mothers and people with church and community duties, so they cant
do that after work. Our program is different because when they punch
in for an eight-hour shift, instead of going to a machine, they
go to a classroom. The first four hours of their shift is spent
getting an education. Since this was initiated in 1992 or 93,
we have given 126 GED diplomas. These people, many of whom are 50
years old or older, stand up oftentimes with tears running down
their cheeks and say, I never thought I could do this.
What this means to them personally and how it affects their children
and their grandchildrenthis is very powerful stuffthis
is a helluva lot better than making carpet. That element of our
company is hard to quantify, but it is one of the things that makes
it a great company.
I also think Stuart Hart from the University of North Carolinas
Kenan-Flagler Business School has been a big influence. He is such
a wonderful balance of business thinking, social and environmental
responsibility. Stuart Hart is leading the way so that future business
leaders will be following the triple bottom line as the new business
metric for economic, social and environmental responsibility.
Another industry leader who I admire greatly because I have seen
what he is trying to do is Chad Holliday of DuPont. He is a remarkable
guy with an impossible job but I think he will get it done. I look
up to him not because he is a titan of industry, but because he
is committed to change for the betterment of mankind.
|Competition is good
in that it can create fundamental change. But if its not
based on truth and integrity and accuracy, it can also create
a lot of confusion. - Mac Bridger
WHATS NEXT ON THE AGENDA?
BRIDGER: Theres some short-
and some long-term challenges. First of all, for the last year we
have been on the cusp of introducing a recycled-content cushion
roll product. Taking waste carpet and making it into cushion is
a very difficult thing to do because not only do you have vinyl
in that mix, but you have nylon and all this other stuff that got
dumped into the mix when you were recycling it. For the last two
years we have made great strides, and I think by the end of this
year we will be ready to launch. Which then will mean that 100 percent
of all the products we make are made with recycled materials. And
that is a very cool thing. But again, we are not going to introduce
this product until it meets all of our performance requirements
and we can sell it at the same price as our virgin product. I am
not going to ask our customers to pay for our R & D.
Number two in the short-term is collection. Collection logistics
are a nightmare. I can envision us having regional material recovery
facilities, either through acquisition or joint venture or partnership,
that would allow customers to send waste to a central location,
have it initially processed and then shipped to Dalton for final
processing. We have to bring more efficiency into the process, not
only for cost reasons. From an environmental standpoint, its
a very inefficient process with lots of energy being used and trucks
going aroundthere has got to be a better way to do this. I
think it needs to be in collaboration with other product manufacturers,
maybe even other carpet manufacturers.
ARE YOU WHERE YOU WANTED TO BE 10 YEARS AGO?
BRIDGER: In 1992, when we went
into this thing, we were almost delusional. Its like sitting
here saying that were going to take a vacation on the moon
10 years from now. You think it would be nice, but you also think
theres no way youre going to get there. So that is the
feeling we had in 1992, but we had a steadfast determination. However,
I dont think in our wildest imagination we thought that in
2002, 100 percent of our tile would be recycled content and that
were almost ready to launch recycled content cushion. Were
way further ahead, for sure. Its been a very exciting journey,
but a very important part of our message is that were not
done; weve still got a lot to accomplish. I think one of the
next great areas is in the social responsibility arenanot
only the social impact of the community you operate in and for the
employees who work in your plant, but also the impact of your product
on the human spirit and quality of life.
Whats important to remember is that this is a journey, not
a destination. What this company is doing now is really building
a legacy for the future.