His early training as a scientist has shaped how one Australian business leader uses green strategies to achieve long-term success for the bottom-line and the planet.
It was while investigating chemical properties as an applied science student in Sydney that Clinton Squires first crystallised how nature and business must work effectively together for our collective futures.
Today, those early lessons have taken the Australian executive to China, to the forefront of sustainable business in an unlikely sector – the traditionally resource-intensive textiles industry.
“The challenges are immediately highlighted here,” he says from Shanghai, where he is running Asian operations for Interface Inc – one of the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturers.
“There’s the scale of population here, the air, water and food quality concerns. I also see a nation that moves straight to the most sustainable or leading edge solutions. Travelling to Beijing by high-speed train, for example, shows a commitment to not being dependent upon air travel with all its issues.
“It’s a powerful reminder of the importance of sustainable business development.”
Interface Inc, the Nasdaq-listed and Atlanta-based carpet giant, has made sustainability a central pillar for more than 20 years as it manufactures eco-friendly tiles for use in offices, schools, hospitals and other commercial facilities. Their stocks have shown strong growth, which is why Australian Ethical Investment have supported them for many years.
Globally Interface operates a carpet-recycling program called ReEntry, which has diverted 5,000 tonnes of used carpet from landfill, and Clinton says it was important to find ways to do this at home.
“ReEntry is our way of taking back old carpet tile at the end of its life and ensuring it doesn’t end up in landfill. We are at an exciting stage in Australia as we have just commissioned new equipment at our Sydney mill to separate the old tiles into their constituent parts for recycling.
Clinton aims to bring this sort of thinking to operations in the important emerging economies across Asia – with support from senior leadership that has backed a series of innovative global sustainability programs as part of its long-standing Mission Zero (2020) environmental commitment.
One notable example is a collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and 36 villages in Cameroon in West Africa and the Philippines to gather and recycle discarded nylon fishing nets into carpet tile yarn.
Left alone, these lost or abandoned “ghost nets” make up a serious hazard for marine life around the world. The Net-Works program instead uses the expertise of the ZSL to help pinpoint and target endangered coral reefs and then provide income for local fishing communities to collect the missing nets.
“I think the future will see an increasing respect for ethically based business as we come to further appreciate the limits of the planet and what natural systems can support,” Clinton says. “So I can see a future where ethical businesses will be better positioned to prosper.”
Energy policy and its interplay with the environment is “clearly a huge issue” for Australia today, he says, and is looking forward to a return to sustainability in the national effort rather than a short-term focus on costs and reliability driven by necessity.
Taking on operations from India to South Korea as Senior Vice President of Interface Asia, he is looking at encouraging the move to “sustainable luxury” within hotels – a sector which has traditionally used heavy woollen carpets with a high-environmental impact and no real recycling plan instead of carpet tiles.
Meanwhile, he says he is “tremendously excited” by his time in China.
“There is so much energy and innovation here. In the sectors Interface touches, I see many small entrepreneurs willing to try new ideas, develop businesses based on waste recycling especially. We have a willing group of potential partners here that is just amazing in terms of numbers and expertise.“
The next major program for Interface is called Climate Take Back, which builds on the Mission Zero, to find ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere over the coming decades. It is something Clinton is confident of with the talent he sees around him and enthusiasm for a sustainable future.
“A sustainable business is all about engaging the ideas and energy of your people. It can be a tremendously rewarding environment to attract talented people and provide development opportunities.”