Ray Anderson, an icon in the movement to make business more ethical and environmentally friendly, died of cancer on Monday at the age of 77. The quintessential industrialist, Anderson underwent a complete change of heart and became an evangelist for the sustainable business. In 1973 at the age of 38 he started Interface,which manufactures carpet tile, a highly petroleum-dependent product. He admits to not giving a thought to environmental concerns until the mid 1990s, when customers started asking questions about Interface’s products and their environmental impact. As chairman, Anderson was asked to share his vision for the environment and the place of his company in it. The problem: he didn’t have a vision. He couldn’t think of any position about the environment beyond “we comply with the law.” But he found inspiration. By chance, he started to read Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce, and he realized that he was not so much an industrialist as a plunderer. He remembered thinking, “My goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail.” He explains:
It was an epiphanal moment, a spear in the chest. I read on and I was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment and about the impacts of the industrial system on the environment…the industrial system of which my successful company and I were an integral part. A new definition of “success” began to creep into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I was a plunderer of the earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind.
In this excerpt from the documentary The Corporation, Anderson tells the story of his epiphany, when he realized that he had been running his company as a plunderer, and that there was a better way:
From that moment in 1994, Anderson began leading his company to a goal of becoming zero waste by 2020. Interface’s sustainability efforts focus on the company’s footprint, its products and its culture. Success has come in many forms, including:
- 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 1996;
- 30% of energy from renewable sources, with a goal of 100% by 2020; and
- 76% reduction in waste going to landfills since 1996.
All while growing to become a billion-dollar company.
Ray Anderson moved out of day-to-day management of the company in 2001; he remained as chairman but spent much of his time spreading the word about sustainable business; he delivered over 1,000 speeches and authored two books. The current CEO of Interface said of Anderson’s passing, “Ray’s iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future. We will honor Ray by keeping his vision alive and the Company on course.”
Thank you, Ray.
Image: Still from The Corporation