Ray Anderson: Enlightened CEO and Environmentalist

August 17, 2011

About This Blog

He took his position as the founder and CEO of Interface, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturing firm, and made environmental history that is extending into many sustainability commitments for the industrial managers he educated.

The loss of Ray Anderson at age 77 took from our country the greatest CEO, the greatest engineer, the greatest hands-on educator of industry making peace with the planet, of them all.

In 1994, Mr. Anderson had what he called his “epiphanal moment” when he read Paul Hawken’s book–The Ecology of Commerce. That is when he gathered his colleagues and set his company on a mission to reach zero pollution by 2020 “by focusing on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and closed-loop recycling.” Interface is more than halfway there reducing expenses and increasing sales and profits in the process. He liked to call himself a “radical industrialist” or a “recovering plunderer of the Earth.”

In 2000 he relinquished the day-to-day running of the company to Dan Hendrix so he could become the synergistic advocate around the country and the world for what he called a “zero footprint.” That is, going beyond the sustainable “to restorative” “to put back more than we take and do good to the earth, not just no harm, through the power of example.”

Years ago I heard him speak in Washington. He sounded like a very precise and enlightened industrial engineering professor, except he was also meeting a payroll and outcompeting his competitors. In 1998 he agreed to sign on to our widely supported petition to USDA and DEA to remove industrial hemp from the DEA’s restrictions and allow our farmers to grow this very versatile plant for energy, food, clothing, paper and many other uses including carpets. Mr. Anderson promised that his company would buy more hemp for its products–industrial hemp can legally be imported from Canada and China–but is not permitted to be grown in the United States. “We have experimented with hemp in carpets and fabrics,” he said, “and it is a very good fiber for both, however supply is very limited because of laws against hemp growing.”

Ray Anderson was authentic. He intensely disliked corporate “greenwashing,” which he defined as “letting words get ahead of deeds purely for economic or personal gain.” At Interface (located in Atlanta), he significantly advanced John Elkington’s concept of the “triple bottom line”–economic, social and environmental which come together into one bottom line (economic) as a better way to make a bigger profit.

Take note of his approach–he starts with a set of deep ethical values, translates them into industrial processes that do not damage the Earth and then bends the corporate behavior to those two predicates.

Asked two years ago what he wants from the government, he replied “a carbon tax… taxing bad things instead of good things, so that an honest market can then work. Today it’s a dishonest market, just stumbling around ignoring the externalities.”

In his first book Mid-Course Correction, he refers people to page 172 to meet “Tomorrow’s Child,” as his reply to the question of what motivates him? Posterity, “tomorrow’s child” includes his five grandchildren.

Hundreds of thousands of engineers should read his book Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist. As a renaissance engineer with his feet on the ground, Mr. Anderson set the standards for professionalism which starts with prevention of damage and ends with restoration. He motivated those in his company and leaders in other companies with his inspirational imagery. He talked of climbing the seven faces of “Mount Sustainability.” “Every foothold gained,” he declared, “begins with a self-questioning analysis of our process and materials and the determination to achieve even better results with less, and ultimately, no impact on our environment.”

Here are the Seven Fronts on “Mount Sustainability”:

Eliminate Waste: Eliminate all forms of waste in every area of business;
Benign Emissions: Eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities;
Renewable Energy: Operate facilities with renewable energy sources–solar, wind, landfill gas, biomass and low impact hydroelectric;
Resource-Efficient Transportation: Transport people and products efficiently to reduce waste and emissions;
Sensitize Stakeholders: Create a culture that integrates sustainability principles and improves peoples’ lives and livelihoods; and
Redesign Commerce: Create a new business model that demonstrates and supports the value of sustainability-based commerce.

While Anderson spoke from details, he moved to inspiration and philosophy. He would say to hard-bitten industrialists and idealistic students: “You, too, have influence. You have the power of one. Your organization has influence, too–the collective influence of one and one and one. Knowledge, deep (not superficial) knowledge, getting well up that curve, comes first. Doing (taking action) must follow–in your personal lives and at work. Knowledge and action are critical. They give credibility and validity to your examples and to your influence, which can spread and grow without limit.”

He even got top executives at Walmart to listen and move.

Ray Anderson’s greatness came from the expansion of his vision from year to year. He was a learner par excellence–from books, from the people at Interface, from academics, and from advisors like David Suzuki and Amory Lovins. In his last book he wrote: “[we] are all part of the continuum of humanity and the web of life in general. We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum, that web, and the Earth that sustains all life. Which will it be? It’s your call.”

Ray Anderson’s legacy lights the way for the future of the world’s productive and living environment.

To his wife Pat, his children and grandchildren go our sorrows and sympathies imbued with a deep appreciation of Ray Anderson’s magnificence that touched all who followed and extended his embracing humanity.

Written by Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. Originally posted via Nader.org.

 **Editor’s note: “Closing the Loop” is the fourth of the seven fronts of Mt. Sustainability, which is redesigning processes and products to close the technical loop using recovered and bio-based materials.


Comments are closed.