An interview with Jon Khoo, Co-Innovation Partner at ground-breaking sustainability-focused carpet design company, Interface.
Jon champions social business initiatives for Interface, including Net-Works, a community-based supply chain programme for recycling discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles.
What do you think has been the key to the success of the Net-Works programme?
Getting the right people around a problem and being willing to invite the unusual suspects to take part. In this case getting a carpet company, a yarn manufacturer and London Zoo (the Zoological Society of London) around a table resulted in a viable product which drives positive social and environmental impact. The fishing communities in developing countries benefit by being able to generate income by selling waste nets. This also has long-term positive impacts on marine and freshwater ecosystem, as waste nets are intercepted before they can pollute the oceans and coastlines. Interface end up with a new, reliable and community-based supply of material for their desirable carpet tiles. Ultimately, the project had to respond to a core business need, in this case the key raw material used in its products. An add-on or side line won’t add long-term value to an organisation. Or a product may have great social benefits but if no-one wants to buy it, it’s not going to be on the market for very long, and then no-one benefits.
What is it about the Interface ethos that inspires you?
The commitment of company’s founder, Ray Anderson, is still strongly felt throughout the organisation. In 1994 he decided that the business, which had been manufacturing carpets through the traditionally petroleum-intensive process for over twenty years, should work towards being the most sustainable business it could be, setting it a challenge to have no negative environmental impacts. This is now be seen through the company’s Mission Zero, and through the shop and factory-floor anecdotes of colleagues’ interactions with Ray over the years. The fact that he committed to acting on this issue has an incredible legacy within the business.
What career path brought you to this role?
I trained and worked as a lawyer for a number of years, which fundamentally was all about solving problems. After a while, I realised I’d rather solve problems that mattered to the world, in particular issues around sustainability. Given my legal background and experience working with the private sector, it made sense to me to look at ways I could help to empower businesses to do good. I joined the On Purpose Associate Programme, which supports people in transitioning into careers within purpose-driven businesses, which saw me join Interface as part of the programme and this eventually led to my current role.
What advice would you pass on to those considering a career in sustainability?
I think there is huge pressure on students and tutors to find projects that are important, deserve their attention and can have long term impact. That said, businesses are also seeking out fresh insights and perspectives, so it’s important to try to get experience and demonstrate entrepreneurial flair and skills to get noticed. Also, find partners to collaborate with. Seek out, talk to and share ideas with as many people as possible. Groups such as MakeSense can be part of this. In particular look for unconventional partners who might spark off something unexpected. My boss Miriam Turner once asked the question ‘how could a carpet tile tackle poverty?’ and that was the beginning of Net-Works. It is that kind of lateral thinking which can lead to truly exciting outcomes.