"It’s like the Wild West out there. There are a lot of claims in the marketplace that aren’t true, and that’s really frustrating," says James, 31, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics and biology and an MBA in sustainable enterprise from the University of North Carolina. "I tell people they can’t get a green product if it was made in a gray, polluting factory."
James’ started her job in July 2006 and now has counterparts in Atlanta, Toronto and São Paulo, Brazil.
She covers most of the Midwest, as well as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming and Southern California, and travels three weeks out of the month, spending a few days each trip training sales reps and clients in the language of eco-manufacturing.
She teaches them about recycled and renewable carpet fibers, the company’s low-waste and low-emission manufacturing, and how carpet factors into the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification process, which governs green construction practices.
James, who is LEED-accredited, often finds herself serving as an all-round sustainability consultant, discussing strategies with client companies and their architects and designers.
One client, the San Diego Zoo, has been interested in InterfaceFlor’s use of biomimicry, which uses nature as inspiration for design. That means, for instance, that in certain product lines, no two carpet tiles look exactly the same. The process is appealing not only aesthetically and as a practical matter—damaged tiles can be replaced at any time and still blend in—but also ecologically.
"If we can follow nature’s design, we can reduce our footprint," James says, citing less manufacturing waste because quality control becomes moot when tiles don’t look the same, and less installation waste, because scraps can be used to fill odd nooks.
Her pitch worked. When James made her first presentation to the San Diego Zoo in 2006, "our staff came away very impressed and moved," says Jon Prange, the zoo’s venture-business manager.
James become interested in green business 10 years ago. While working for RTI International, a research institute affiliated with the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University, she read The Ecology of Commerce. Written by Smith & Hawken Ltd. co-founder Paul Hawken, the book advocates that industry atone for a history of environmental damage by becoming a steward for environmental and social preservation.
"That’s why I went to business school, because I realized there really are companies that can do the right thing and understand the strategy behind using sustainability," she says. "If business can align incentives for profit in the right way, it can really turn the tide."