Nature as Innovator
S+B: What companies are leading the charge on biomimetic products?
BENYUS: The first company I worked for is Interface, a $1.3 billion operation in Atlanta that has about 40 percent of the carpet tile market. Manufacturing carpet is particularly hard on the environment; it uses petrochemicals in every step of the process, consumes vast amounts of energy, and produces tons of waste. About 12 years ago, just as the green building movement was starting to percolate, Interface’s CEO, Ray Anderson, committed to remaking the company as a model of sustainability. Interface’s lead designer, David Oakey, who’d just read my book, asked Dayna Baumeister, who cofounded the Biomimicry Guild, to come in and conduct a workshop for their designers.
The question was, How would nature design a carpet? As we do with all our workshops, we started by taking the group outdoors; we looked for Interface’s answers in a forest. The group observed that when you pick up a leaf off the forest floor and you look back down, the forest floor is still beautiful. Everywhere the group looked, they saw that sort of organized chaos. No two sticks, no two leaves are alike, but together they’re beautiful.
They used that observation to rethink their approach to carpet tiles. Carpets are woven on broad looms, so carpet rolls are 12 or 15 feet wide. There’s a pattern on that broadloom, and when you cut it into tiles, you have to make sure that you lay the pieces down perfectly to match the pattern. The ends of the roll become waste, because they don’t fit into the pattern. Another problem with carpet tiles is that they were never really as flexible as they were supposed to be. The original idea behind them was that when a square needed replacing, you’d pull it up and lay another one down and no one would notice the difference, even years later. Well, it didn’t really work that way. When you put down the replacement tile, it was clearly new — it was slightly out of pattern or the colors didn’t quite match. So people wound up tearing up the whole carpet.
Instead, Interface decided to follow nature’s lead and give every carpet tile a different pattern and hue — to replicate the random beauty of leaves on the forest floor. You can replace worn or stained squares with new ones that don’t stick out like a sore thumb. And Interface could use the ends of the rolls, so there wasn’t so much waste. The new product, called Entropy [now one of several lines of similar products called i2], was revolutionary; no one had ever done anything like that before. In three years, it became their bestselling line, and now it makes up 40 percent of their carpet sales. Entropy and i2 are successful not just because they’re “greener,” but also because they give customers so much flexibility.
S+B: Do your clients tend to use sustainability as a selling point?
BENYUS: Some do, like Interface, but not all. S.C. Johnson, the family-owned cleaning products company, has quietly been trying to do a lot of sustainability work. I talked to them about a number of ideas: adhesives modeled on the gecko’s foot, packaging modeled on beetle shells, and carbon dioxide sensors for the home based on human cells.
They’re very interested in coming up with a line of formaldehyde-free glues modeled on the super-adhesives produced by mussels. The problem with glues used in plywood or in particleboard is that many contain formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — to make them waterproof. The appeal of mussel glue is that it has zero formaldehyde; plus, it’s more waterproof than the adhesives currently in use.