Focus on Leadership: Rochelle Routman leads HMTX’s sustainability efforts with her head and her heart – Aug/Sept 2023

Interview by Kemp Harr

Chief sustainability and impact officer of HMTX Industries, Rochelle Routman’s passion for sustainability and social justice germinated early and continues to drive her pursuits.

Routman grew up in Western Pennsylvania and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in geology followed by a Master of Science degree in public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

After spending her early career working in sustainability for firms such as Lockheed Martin, Georgia Power and Southern Company, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Routman found the flooring industry, spending four years focused on Mohawk’s environmental initiatives before joining HMTX Industries in 2016. Under her leadership, HMTX has become a sustainable leader in the resilient industry, establishing a roadmap for ethical strategy, production and operation.

In addition to her work at HMTX, Routman is president and chairperson of the Women in Sustainability Leadership Awards Alumnae Group.

Q: What led you to focus your career on environmental and social issues?
It has been a lifelong calling. I was always fascinated with the natural world, even as a very young child. I felt a very strong emotional connection-and still do-to birds, plants, soil, the microscopic invertebrates that live in mud puddles and everything else in nature. Upon entering young adulthood, I became very interested in social issues. However, it wasn’t until later in my career that I realized that social issues and environmental issues are one and the same.

Q: How critical is climate change in the ranking of issues that we must address to have a sustainable world for our grandchildren?
Climate change is the top-ranking item because it is affecting all systems in the biosphere, including the food supply. And yes, we must think of future generations, but climate change has created a worldwide crisis that is impacting us today. This means that all of us must come together and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even while recognizing that any positive effects that result from our efforts may not noticeably stabilize the climate for the next several decades to hundreds of years. Still, it’s worth the effort because the hope of vibrant, complex ecosystems and a decent quality of life for all people-even people that we will never know-is important to strive for.

Q: What does it take for HMTX to ensure it is prioritizing the wellbeing of the planet, its customers and employees?
I’m extremely fortunate to work for a company that emphasizes compassion as a fundamental value. Compassion is the first step in accomplishing the wellbeing of anything. The company is equally committed to transparency, and this has resulted in HMTX issuing the only JUST label in the flooring industry as well as leading the pack in Declare labels and HPDs (health product declarations) for resilient flooring products. With this dual focus on compassion and transparency, HMTX Industries has what it takes to prioritize the wellbeing of the planet, its customers and employees.

Q: What metrics do use to measure success in your role at HMTX?
While the company is reporting on many environmental and social metrics-such as greenhouse gas and water intensity, ethnicity and gender-I see those as table stakes for all companies that want to be taken seriously.

My personal metrics to measure success in my role are different. I view the degree of productivity, inclusivity and collaboration of the team that I lead and our positive influence on the company as a key metric. This year, I’d like to see a deeper understanding of sustainability and how it impacts our company and our world among the entire employee population. HMTX Industries is in a high growth phase, and we are accelerating the development of new products. All employees must have a basic understanding of how sustainability impacts their role in these endeavors, as this is key to business success.

Q: Is there a single third-party certification that is best for measuring the impact your company is making on the planet?
No, because our customer base is very diverse, and therefore, they have diverse interests. However, environmental product declarations (EPDs) are rising in importance once again because they communicate environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions. EPDs are necessary to share information with the customers on the carbon footprint of our products, which is quickly becoming a universal concern.

Q: What needs to happen for PVC to become a sustainable material, and what is being done to achieve this?
For PVC to be truly sustainable, PVC products must be designed and/or redesigned with ease of recycling in mind. PVC product manufacturers must come together and work out a plan for capture, transportation and processing of closed-loop recycling of used PVC products. Additionally, all additives that are unhealthy, biologically speaking, must be eliminated to produce a clean stream of recyclable material.

Many industry groups, such as the Resilient Floor Covering Institute, have a recycling initiative. There are also many universities making progress on this same issue. I believe that this must go beyond the flooring industry and involve all manufacturers of PVC products, to create an ample and complete “bank” of PVC recyclate material.

Q: Talk about ESG and the steps your company is taking to be a leader in this area.
ESG has been a very positive step in the sustainability movement because it has created an avenue for close collaboration with the financial industry. The idea is that sustainability is no longer just about telling a good story; data is now being collected with greater consistency and according to accepted reporting formats-comparable to how financial data is reported. This makes all companies that are preparing ESG data strive to do better, as they will reap financial rewards.

This is of great importance to HMTX Industries; we think of it a little bit more broadly and view it as impact, which encompasses more than ESG data and includes cultural aspects of the company that make us who we are.

We have a fabulous team of people called the Impact Initiative Team, which has led this effort from the beginning. The first thing we did was read a book called Impact: Reshaping Capitalism to Drive Real Change. We then conducted a materiality survey of our stakeholders and set out to prepare our first impact report. We will issue our second report this fall, and from that point forward, we will publish each new report in the spring. We are destined to lead in impact because we have a group of very seasoned professionals committed to expanding the universe of metrics upon which we report and staying aligned with the UN Sustainability Development Goals. We are also reporting according to accepted frameworks, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and eventually with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and, perhaps, other universal frameworks as they are developed. The impact work that is being accomplished is very impressive considering the size of our growing and highly successful privately held company.

Q: Tell us your vision of what sustainable manufacturing looks like, and where should flooring industry leaders focus their attention to help achieve this vision?
My vision of sustainable manufacturing includes factories and businesses that are not reliant on fossil fuels for production, operations or transportation of products to the customer. Essentially, both the operational and embodied carbon footprint of the products would be zero, or close to it. This may sound futuristic, but it’s time to think futuristically and take the steps to get there.

Q: Can your understanding of epistemology from your studies at Georgia Tech shed light on the hurdles society faces in prioritizing sustainability?
My studies at Georgia Tech included several philosophy and ethics courses through the lens of sustainability. Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, defines what evidence we consider to be true. On a personal level, each of us has a map (i.e., a paradigm) that defines how we view the world. This can sometimes limit our perception of reality. All paradigms contain their own epistemology. For example, the scientific paradigm is based upon empirical evidence generated by a scientific experiment. Because of clashing paradigms, real scientific problems that threaten humanity, such as climate change, are turned into a political debate that saps time and energy, which could instead be used for employing solutions for all of us.

There is hope, though. Currently, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, a national average of 72% of people believe that climate change is happening. This certainly represents a paradigm shift, in that, as little as ten years ago, the percentage was much lower. With more people understanding the scientific paradigm of climate change, there will be increasing expectations upon society, including government and businesses, to address the problem.

Q: What will it take for consumers to start caring about the impact of their flooring choices on the environment?
Consumers do care about the impact of their flooring choices on the environment; it’s just that there are different degrees of concern based upon knowledge and even the ability to focus on this. There are multiple studies demonstrating that people with resources are not just concerned but willing to pay more for sustainable products. Other people are just getting by on a day-to-day basis, and for them, this is most likely not top of mind-even though, if given an affordable and more sustainable option, they may select it. Sustainability will one day be the right of all consumers.

Q: Who are your mentors, and what have they taught you?
My most important mentors were my mother and father. My mother taught me how to responsibly act on free will and gave me the confidence to be successful in this complicated world by using my own skills. Rule #1 was to do your homework on your own. My father nurtured my love of nature and taught me how to survive in the wilderness.

Later, my mentors were my college professors and classmates, along with some very special corporate leaders that helped me find suitable opportunities where I could continue to grow at each step in my career. All of them taught me the importance of leading with accountability, channeling my passion into actual accomplishments for the business and the planet, and speaking openly about my vision for a better world. Today, the people I lead mentor me, and I do everything possible to mentor them. All the executives at HMTX Industries mentor one another, and we are a very expressive (and impressive) group!

Q: What is your favorite book addressing how humanity and nature can harmoniously coexist?
I have read many books that identify the conflicts between humanity and nature but not so many that provide viable, holistic solutions. This is probably because this topic is multi-faceted and complex. Maybe I should write one!

On a more serious note, a book that influenced my thinking early on and is a treasure to the environmental movement is Aldo Leopold’s essay in A Sand County Almanac, “The Land Ethic,” an appeal for moral responsibility to the natural world. Leopold promoted an accepted set of values based on caring-for people, for land and for all the connections between them. Leopold was wise, as he understood that the very survival of humans and other living beings is interdependent. We would not be facing the multitude of environmental and social problems we are now if this caring set of values had been more widely embraced since the beginning of the industrial era. I do see hope, though. There are many people organizing and strategizing on how to more firmly establish this set of ethics that Leopold penned within our financial, legal and governmental systems.

Q: How do you balance your daily life to live it to the fullest?
I’m still in learning mode, but I prioritize my time to the best of my ability and set aside time to spend with the people that I love and to get enough rest, fresh air and exercise. I love being outside and working in my garden, which is filled with antique roses and many unusual plants. I also make time to travel and explore new places. This world is filled with historical sites that show the trials and tribulations of previous generations and how they were overcome. The fighting spirit of humanity lives on.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Mohawk Industries, HMTX