Manufacture 2030 caught up with Jon Khoo from Interface to find out more about Net-Works and Interface's partnership with ZSL.
Jon is Innovation Partner at Interface, focussing on sustainability, intrapreneurship and climate change. Following his career as a city lawyer, Jon joined Interface in 2012 having chosen to reapply his skills to tackle the global challenges of marine plastics, inequality and climate change. Jon's key focus has been Interface and the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Net-WorksTM partnership, a community-based supply chain for discarded fishing nets that empowers communities and replenishes the oceans. Jon is also a trustee for environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage.
What made you want to change direction from being a city lawyer to tackling the challenges of marine plastics, inequality and climate change?
Working as a city lawyer is a great career but over time, and through a recession, I realised that, for me, there are bigger problems to solve than advising on mergers and acquisitions – it’s important work, but I decided that climate change was a bigger fish!
A Blue Ventures marine conservation expedition to Fiji to check the health of coral reefs and fish abundancies spurred me to reapply my skills. A little later, I joined a programme called On Purpose that helped people to transition into the third sector and purposeful businesses. As part of this, I interviewed for a placement at Interface - I’d just come back from a surf trip to Senegal, where I had spent time helping fishermen to take in nets while the tide was changing. The Co-founder of the Net-Works project interviewed me; as soon as I mentioned my trip the connection with Interface’s new project was made and the rest is history!
Your key focus has been the Interface-ZSL community-based supply chain project for discarded fishing nets. Could you explain briefly how this project works?
We partnered with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to create our Net-Works programme, which sees the worlds of conservation and carpet tile collide! It’s a community-based supply chain that takes discarded nylon fishing nets and transforms them into feedstock for Interface’s carpet tile products. By doing this, we’re able to provide the communities involved with a healthier marine environment – cleaner beaches, improved fish stocks and socio-economic benefits such as access to finance and the ability to save and take out loans.
On the back of these socio-economic benefits, we’ve seen a large number of people from our communities turn to seaweed farming. This is great as it means they have an alternative livelihood to fishing, which is particularly challenging industry at the moment owing to climate change and corporate competition. One of the key goals of this project is building resilience within local communities.
What is one of the greatest challenges you have faced while working on the Interface-ZSL community-based supply chain project for discarded fishing nets?
There have been two as I see it. The first was Typhoon Haiyan, in 2013, one of the biggest to hit the Philippines for a generation. We had just finished our Net-Works pilot and were starting to expand, and suddenly our community partners were in chaos – houses flattened, people displaced and distressed. They had bigger problems than fishing nets at that point, and rightly so, but it was a huge challenge for the project. We helped these incredibly resilient communities as much as we could by reversing our supply chain – the boats that would normally take fishing nets out instead helped to bring building materials to the affected areas.
The second is scaling. We’ve proven that Net-Works works as we are now in 36 communities in three countries but we are keen to do more. Net-Works shouldn’t just be about fishing nets, but also other forms of waste. We’re exploring this and looking into how to scale the project!
How has collaboration helped this project to move forward?
Net-Works exists because of bold thinking and collaboration. Empathy has also played a key enabling role allowing us to step into the shoes of local fishing communities, or the Zoological Society of London, or any of our other suppliers, ensuring access to a greater breadth of ideas and solutions. It all boils down to being able to understand each other’s positions and develop solutions together.
Net-Works thrives because we are able to offer different perspectives. Also a point not to be overlooked is the unique collaboration between a modular flooring company and a zoo which has introduced both brands to new audiences.
If you had to give two pieces of advice to a peer on how to incorporate the circular economy into their business, what would they be?
Get the value proposition for your customer base right. A case in point, a peer in the printing industry recently told me that when they set up a subscription service for their business and included a pre-paid envelope, the rate of return was much higher. It’s immediate, it’s easy and it understands that the customer doesn’t really want to spend a lot of time, effort or money!
Be open to working with more ‘unusual suspects’, alongside your usual trusted collaborators. Even after five years of talking about a modular flooring company working with a zoo, the idea still raises smiles and eyebrows – which is a good thing. Whenever we’re having discussions around any sustainability challenge, we look at the ‘maybes’ on the attendee list, and consider whether they could bring an unusual perspective.
What interests you about Manufacture 2030?
At Interface, we say that none of us are as smart as all of us. When the right people come together to discuss a problem, you get better ideas. We’ve definitely benefitted from the times we’ve been able to reach out and ask for help.
I believe that the circular economy is a challenge that needs a range of different approaches – there’s no one right answer. The Manufacture 2030 Community provides a place for discussion, interesting case studies and a chance for people from different industries to work together. Being part of a group of like minds, sharing challenges as well as successes and acknowledging that projects like ours are hard work continues the learning journey! A community of like-minded advocates from different backgrounds will offer diversity of thought and bring about the best outcome for the greater good.
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