GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Ray Anderson, founder of one of the world’s largest interior-furnishings firms, Atlanta-based Interface Inc., came to a stunning realization in the mid-1990s.

By 1995, Interface had become a manufacturing company that produced and sold $802 million worth of carpets, textiles (including for the auto industry), chemicals and architectural flooring.

An examination of the supply chain revealed Interface was extracting 1.2 billion lbs. (544 million kg) of inorganic and petroleum-based raw materials from the Earth in 1995, Anderson writes in his 1998 book, “Mid-Course Correction.”

That included 800 million lbs. (363 million kg) of non-renewable fossil fuels, two-thirds of which were burned to produce the energy to convert the remaining one-third into finished, manufactured products.

“I asked for that calculation, and when the answer came back, I was staggered…It made me want to throw up,” he writes. “My company’s technologies – and those of every other company I know of anywhere – in their present forms, are plundering the Earth. This cannot go on and on and on.”

From that point forward, Anderson dedicated his efforts to making Interface a sustainable enterprise – one that aimed to never take another drop of oil from the Earth.

“He had been in the carpet industry for a long time and never really thought about the environment until customers began asking some questions about how our products, specifically carpeting, impacted the environment,” says Amy Robertson.

Robertson is director of marketing and sustainability for True Inc., the former Interface textile subsidiary that was acquired by private-equity firm Sun Capital Partners Inc. in July 2007.

Despite the spinoff, True continues to adhere to Interface’s sustainable philosophy, which permeates every aspect of the upstart automotive supplier’s business.

“It’s much more than product for us. It’s going behind the scenes and changing the way we do everything.” Robertson says.

True’s sustainability slant “really gave us a personality, it gave us a mission to be working towards,” adds Rob Harper, senior vice president-sales. “It positioned us in the marketplace as being unique, and we continue that going forward.”

From the soaps it uses in employee restrooms to the chemical content of its fabric dyes, True has a goal of being 100% sustainable, with “virtually no impact on the environment” by 2020, he says.

Currently, about 60% of True’s textiles contain recycled or bio-based content.

For instance, the seat fabric in the ’08 Ford Escape Hybrid that True supplies is made of 100% pre-consumer recycled content, such as pop bottles that were discarded because they didn’t meet specifications by the manufacturer, Harper says.

While there is a plentiful supply of this type of feedstock to meet demand, he says the ultimate goal is toward using more post-consumer content.

True also manufactures corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) for office-furniture applications and soon hopes to implement a “potatoes-to-plastics” initiative with the state of Maine, where True is headquartered.

“We have a dream to make fabric in Maine from Maine potatoes, and it wouldn’t take potatoes out of the food supply because it’s based on the use of waste potatoes and waste from processing potatoes,” Robertson says.

True is looking to make fiber from the starch of plentiful, non-genetically modified waste potatoes, which makes for a “more sustainable farming story,” she says. The resulting fabric, although early in the development process, will be suitable for automotive applications.

“One of our objectives is to get a product that will achieve the light fastness requirements and the wear requirements of an automotive application, so that it can be used there,” Harper says.

As with its PLA products, one of the company’s criteria for potato-based fabric will be its ability to compost industrially after its useful life. True is mindful of the environmental friendliness of the dyes and treatments it uses on its fabrics, as well as the amount of energy and water consumed in the manufacturing process.

All of the chemicals the company uses, from bathroom cleaners to fabric dyes, must go through a “pass” system, where they are evaluated by environmental engineers, Harper says.

The company also has a reclamation initiative, dubbed ReSKU, which aims to take back yarns from waste fabrics, as well as used fabric, preventing it from ending up in a landfill.

In addition, Harper says True’s Grand Rapids, MI, facility is working on switching over to all compact fluorescent lighting. It already uses refurbished office furniture and has eliminated plastic water bottles and disposable dishes and flatware in favor of reusable goods, such as glass drinking cups.

While True doesn’t require suppliers to adopt all of its sustainable activities, which also include offsetting carbon emissions from travel for all employees and setting up office recycling stations, it does mandate they meet a dyeing chemical protocol, Robertson says.

Some suppliers are enthusiastic about True’s mission and some aren’t, admits Harper.

“You’ve got to remember these folks supply lots of different markets…apparel, residential, as well as automotive and other things.

Some marketplaces have a greater demand for (sustainability).

“We’ve really led the charge, and we’re pushing them. It’s starting to pick up in other places, but…we’re by far ahead of anybody else.”

Despite plummeting new-car sales in the U.S., Harper says “a desire for segmentation” is driving True, a textile supplier primarily to the office and hospitality markets, to pursue more automotive business.

It’s a logical step as Harper and other True executives have prior automotive experience. Harper is a former executive of now-defunct Collins & Aikman Corp., as is True CEO Chris Richard.

Both men are based in Grand Rapids to be closer to the majority of True’s office-furniture customers, such as Steelcase Inc. and Herman Miller Inc. Within the next year, True hopes to open a Detroit-area office, centralizing employees who now work from home.

While automotive comprises only 3% of its business, Harper says contracts with auto makers will increase “sharply” in the coming years. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. presently is “studying” using True fabric in its upcoming electric vehicle, due in 2010, says Mark Perry, Nissan North America Inc. product planner.

Harper says contracts for vehicles with alternative powertrains will comprise the majority of True’s future business. “(However), there are some things in development now. They’re not secure programs, but they are some things that are not hybrid vehicles, or what we consider a ‘green’ vehicle.”

Auto makers, he says, are contacting True, prompted by increasing questions from customers about the environmental friendliness of their vehicles.

Also driving OEMs toward True is the desire to have a supply base that is more “green,” with the expectation the Environmental Protection Agency may begin regulating emissions relating to vehicle manufacturing, Harper says.

Any resistance to using True fabric by auto makers typically comes not from durability or cost concerns but “simply because we’re new to them,” he says.

The Ford Escape Hybrid contract has gone a long way to alleviating this problem.

Typically, there is not an increased cost associated with using True fabrics, compared with virgin polyester with no recycled or bio-based content, Harper says. True’s focus on minimizing waste in the manufacturing, as well as design process, begets cost savings.

“Basically we believe waste is bad design,” Robertson says. “If you think about it from the beginning, you design the waste right out.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com