can’t see the forest

Ray C. Anderson: an American Hero

Posted in business, ecology, Global Warming, Lifestyle by Curtis on 8/22/06

“Business does not exist for profit. It profits in order to exist.” — Ray C. Anderson

Ray C. Anderson, CEO, Interface

Ray C. Anderson is Chief Executive Officer of Interface, a company he founded in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1973. Interface is now the world’s largest producer of modular carpeting and other textiles. Under Anderson’s leadership, it has also become arguably the world’s most environmentally friendly “megacorporation.”

Anderson began his career in the textile industry after graduating from the Georgia Institute of Technology, working for fourteen years with Deering-Milliken and Callaway Mills before starting his own business. Interface rose to become a billion dollar-a-year company.

Much of the carpeting produced by Interface and other companies is based on petroleum products. Every year, Anderson’s factories produced hundreds of gallons of highly toxic wastewater and over 900 different pollutants.

“I just wanted to survive,” said Anderson in an Ottawa Citizen interview. “I never gave a thought to what we were doing to the Earth.”

Anderson recalls that, in the early 1990s, his own sales force began to exert pressure on Interface’s environmental stance. Customers wanted to know what Interface was doing for the environment. “Interface just doesn’t get it,” an environmental consultant had told one of his major customers. With a big piece of business potentially about to slip away, Anderson felt that he had to do something. But what?

That’s when, in 1994, Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce and Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael landed on his desk.

Anderson had put together a task force to address the company’s environmental stance, but was at a loss when he was asked to address this group with a “kickoff” speech. He could report that Interface obeyed the law and complied with regulations, but beyond that, he just didn’t have an environmental vision. It hadn’t been part of his formula for success.

Quinn’s Ishmael is a novel in which a telepathic ape discusses with a down-and-out writer the fact that modern civilization forces its members to base their lifestyles, ultimately, upon the destruction of the Earth. Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce is a nonfiction title whose premise is that industrialists are responsible for this destruction and are the only ones powerful enough to stop it.

“It was an epiphanal moment,” recalls Anderson. “It was a spear in the chest. I read on and I was dumbfounded about how much I didn’t know about the environment and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment…a new definition of success began to creep into my consciousness. I was a plunderer of the earth, and this is not a legacy I wanted to leave behind.”

“I wept.”

Anderson now had the confidence and the vision with which to address his own task force. He outlined a strategy which Interface has come to refer to as “climbing Mount Sustainability.” Under Anderson’s plan, Interface is to become a 100 percent sustainable enterprise, with a net ecological impact of zero, by 2020. He is singlehandedly transforming one of the world’s most destructive enterprises into the pinnacle of environmental responsibility.

And costs are down. Profits are up. Ray and his investors are enjoying the fresh air and clean consciences all the way to the bank.

“Every day of my life,” says Ray, “tomorrow’s child has spoken to me. We have a choice to make during our brief visit to this beautiful planet. To hurt it, or to help it.”

Interface began its new path by focusing on reducing waste. Since 1995, the company has so far reduced its contributions to landfills by 63 percent (over 85 million pounds of material was diverted between 1995-2005) and has saved $300 million in avoided costs in the process. Computer controls in its factories have reduced the company’s carbon dioxide emissions by an astouding 56 percent. What’s more, Interface is less than halfway through its mid-course correction in ethics. 

Initiatives to increase Interface’s energy efficiency have resulted in a 41 percent drop in energy used at manufacturing facilities. Five of Anderson’s seven manufacturing facilities now use 100 percent renewable energy. The company has drastically increased the amount of recyclable material it uses in its product and plans to continue this trend until its product is 100 percent renewable. Anderson plans to eliminate “virgin yarn” from his manufacturing processes, instead relying on a combination of recycled material and natural materials, such as hemp, to make his product.

Interface now consumes about 50 percent less water than it used to. Anderson has ordered the planting of trees (more than 52,000 so far) in order to offset the environmental costs of transporting products and materials by truck.

But Anderson is not content to rest on his own well-deserved laurels. He travels the world delivering fact-packed addresses to business and environmental leaders. He dispels the myth that environmental responsibility is a stake in the heart of profits. His own company’s success story continues to demonstrate that what’s good for Earth is good for business, too.

He has been described as a radical that “makes Greenpeace look timid.” But while other business leaders look on in consternation, Anderson is putting more money in his pocket, not less, by saving the Earth. The nearly $300 million his company has saved by eliminating the cost of excessive waste is, alone, more than enough to pay for the material costs of his environmental initiative.

A cornerstone of Anderson’s understanding, perhaps, is that governmental regulations are simply not enough. Interface was in full compliance with these regulations before Anderson launched the climb of Mount Sustainability eleven years ago. If the government will not tighten its standards, he reasons, then it should eventually follow that environmentally responsible businesses will drive the more remorseless barons out of competition. Ultimately, he feels, all businesses will have to make the choice. But many of them may not do this unless their own viabilities are placed at stake. In our age, petroleum is the lifeblood of the economy. Apart from its own production, the USA imported about 317 million barrels of crude oil in May 2006 alone, which in turn was sold in the range of $70 per barrel. That’s big business—the most profitable business in the world, in fact—and that’s the stuff that was going into Ray’s textiles. “Not a drop of oil,” he says, will go into Interface products in the future. 

For more on Anderson’s bold ideas and pioneering efforts, check out his 2005 address at Saint Xavier University in Nova Scotia, to the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness. Also, in 1998 Anderson published a book, Mid-Course Correction, which documents his ideas and his company’s monumental progress in responsibility.

Ray Anderson, I salute you and tomorrow’s child adores you. You are a true American Hero.

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