Hailed by some as an environmental hero but viewed with scepticism by others, history will judge how important a sustainability champion was Ray Anderson, the founder and CEO of Interface who died recently. Jamie Mitchell looks back at Anderson’s life
These days sustainability sells, but in a time when companies routinely make hyperbolic claims about helping to ‘save the world’, Ray Anderson, who died in August, was a true champion of sustainability.
As founder and CEO of Interface, the USA’s biggest manufacturer of modular carpet tiles, Anderson became one of the leading lights of the green business movement. Time magazine called him a ‘hero of the environment’, while the American News & World Report named him America’s greenest CEO. But Anderson was actually a relatively late convert to environmentalism.
It was in 1994 when he was 60 that Anderson had what he described as an epiphany after reading environmentalist Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. Anderson was stuck by its indictment of what Hawken called ‘plunderers of the Earth’.
He recognised himself in that description. As the New York Times put it recently: ‘He saw the author’s point. He even wept. Then he set out to change things.’
‘I stood indicted as a plunderer, a destroyer of the Earth, a thief of my own grandchildren’s future,’ he said later. ‘And I thought, “My God, someday what I do here will be illegal. Someday they’ll send people like me to jail”.’
Anderson realised that his company’s use of petrochemicals and scarce resources was contributing to a grave ecological crisis, but he also knew that simply reducing emissions wouldn’t do.
Instead he decided to embark on Mission Zero – the goal of which was to eradicate all harmful emissions and practices from his company’s operation. He also wrote two books about his vision, Mid-Course Correction (1998) and Confessions of a Radical Industrialist (2009).
He said in 1997: ‘If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, recycling them into new materials and converting sunlight into energy, with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well... very well... by doing good. That’s the vision.’
Born in West Point, Georgia at the tailend of the Great Depression, Anderson was a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and worked in the carpet industry for almost 15 years before setting up his own company in Atlanta with ‘nothing more than a good idea, my life’s savings and a few brave investors’.
He first saw carpet tiles on a trip to the UK in 1969 and became convinced that they were ‘the future’. He put everything he had into the company, building it up to a major multinational with sales in excess of $1m a year.
Anderson’s vision was of profitable sustainability: he believed, and proved, that it was possible to reduce a company’s carbon footprint while also increasing profits.
He was lauded by many of his peers, but in a country where sustainability is still a divisive issue, he was also criticised. In Confessions of a Radical Industrialist he wrote: ‘I’ve… been called a hypocrite and a dreamer who pours his time, energy, and stockholder money into lofty dreams about ecology and sustainability instead of the bottom line.’
‘We caught plenty of flak from outside the company too,’ he said. ‘Wall Street heard “environment” and thought “costs”. Even when we showed them how reaching for sustainability could take a big bite out of waste and save us real money, even when we discovered that running a billion-dollar corporation with the Earth in mind was a terrific new business model, there was still a lot of scepticism.’
Sadly, Anderson didn’t live to see his company reach the summit of what he called Mount Sustainability (he reckoned on being about halfway there). But his pioneering spirit has inspired those at his company to carry on his good work. He has also undoubtedly made the world of business a much less sceptical one.
Ray Anderson died at his home in Atlanta, Georgia, surrounded by his family after a 20-month battle with cancer.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.