Chatting with Ray Anderson, radical industrialist

Ray Anderson’s epiphany about his own role in environmental destruction after reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce has taken on mythic status in the fifteen years since. The “spear in the chest moment” he experienced transformed Anderson into a leader in sustainable thought and practice within American industry, and his company, Interface, Inc. (which manufacture modular floor covering primarily for business and institutional customers) is now recognized as a model of transformation. Named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time magazine in 2007, Anderson is constantly sought out for speeches, interviews, and even documentary film appearances (THE CORPORATION, and the new SO RIGHT SO SMART)

In September, Anderson (with Robin White) published his second book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Planet — Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. This wide-ranging work not only tells Interface’s story in detail, but also provides a blueprint for how a large, well-established company can literally reinvent itself as both a profitable enterprise and a business that learns to operate in harmony with natural systems.

The word “confessions” in the title is very appropriate: Anderson is very frank about Interface’s successes and setbacks in its climb up “Mt. Sustainability” (a phrase he coined). He also discusses the efforts of other companies, and makes bold, and hopeful, cases for environmental and social responsibility as pillars of successful business strategy in the 21st century. The book is an engaging and thoughtful read for business people, environmental activists, and consumers concerned about the impact of industry on the planet’s future.

I spoke with Anderson on the phone on Wednesday, November 4, 2009.

So much of Interface’s success in “climbing Mt. Sustainability” seems based in really common-sense approaches to design, manufacturing, and distribution. We Americans generally regard ourselves as practical, efficient, etc., yet we encounter such strong resistance on numerous fronts to these kinds of changes… they really seem to scare some people. In your experience, what’s the best way to approach this resistance to new ideas?

It requires a considerable amount of patience, and also persistence. I know in bringing our people along, it was one mind at a time. It’s not something you could dictate, and everyone accepted immediately. Or, it’s not something you can dictate and everybody ever accepted, for that matter. It’s one mind at a time.

I know in our instance as a for-profit business, one of the most important things that helped bring our people along was the response of the marketplace. When our customers began to embrace our company for what we were trying to do, it had a huge effect on our people: they saw the positive response, and saw the common-sense wisdom of what we were doing.

So, persistence and consistency. I felt it was my job to be very, very consistent with the message: “Here’s where we’re going, and here’s why.” I told that to people over and over and over again over the course of, literally, years. And that’s where patience comes in: there’s no way that it’s the program of the week, or the program of the month, or the program of the year. It really has to be the commitment of a lifetime… and it’s one mind at a time.

I know Interface operates internationally, but it’s also a company with deep roots in the South. Did any particular challenges come up from approaching corporate sustainability in a Southern setting?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think there were any particularly outstanding challenges because of our location. As you say, we operate around the world. Actually, our European contingent was very slow to come on board. They simply didn’t believe we were serious. That’s the other side of that coin: people look at the United States, and not just the South, and say “You can’t be serious. Just look at how you live.” So, it took an extraordinary effort to bring them along and convince them that this was real, that this was where we were going, and, in fact, that they could lead us if you’ll get with it. And that’s ultimately what did happen.

What’s the status of the ReEntry 2.0 carpet recycling program? I know when you wrote about it in the book, Interface was about ten months into the process.

It’s up and running full-bore.

You mention several specific challenges in getting this running. The transportation logistics of moving large amounts of discarded carpet to recycling facilities was one of them.

That continues to evolve and be refined. As the volume of it grows, the efficiency also grows.

Have you been able to find other suppliers that can take the reclaimed carpet fluff?

We’re working now with two suppliers… and that may be enough. (Note: at the time of the books writing, there was only supplier that could handle this material).

In the book, you discuss renovating facilities to take advantage of locally-available resources, and “using local knowledge to solve local problems.” Give large companies tendency to expand by replicating systems regardless of place, do you think that small(er) businesses with an understanding of their local resources will have a competitive advantage over larger companies?

I’m not sure… I think it takes a certain scale to make the transition worthwhile… or, to make the effort worthwhile. I get the question “What do you have to say to small businesses?” very regularly – “They don’t have the resources that you do to do this.” My response is “Well, Interface is collection of small businesses, and we’re doing it in all of those small businesses.” So, that’s not an excuse. I do think it helps, though, to have a certain scale where one R&D effort can have a larger effect through a larger organization. So, I think the little guys have it a little bit tougher than the big guys.

You discuss business and technical education in the book: innovative approaches (Georgia Tech, Bainbridge Graduate Institute), as well as failures of educational institutions to update their curricula and approaches to teaching design, economics, etc., to reflect more sustainable ways of working and doing business. What would an ideal educational background for an Interface management-track employee look like?

Well, I haven’t really thought about that, and it would require a good bit of thought, I expect. One of the failings of our technological universities in particular is a failure to give adequate attention to biology. I would require that every engineering student take three semesters of biology… until they really got it in terms of how the natural world really operates, and how the technosphere is a part of the biosphere.

So, to promote the idea of biomimicry?

Yes, but it’s more than biomimicry. It’s really about understanding natural systems, and how they work, and how impactful the technosphere is, in a negative way, on the biosphere. We take for granted the sources and the sinks. They’re not infinite. I think the first lesson in design is “Assume unlimited resources: don’t let availability of resources stand in your way of developing your design solution to this problem or that problem.” Well, maybe we ought to account for limited resources, and ask ourselves “What if everybody did it?”

So, that goes back to Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce in terms of thinking of resource availability.

Yes. And it’s Immanuel Kant, too: the categorical imperative. What if everybody did it?

Since you mention Kant, do you think a strong humanities background is critical to designers and engineers?

I think we’re a very anthropocentric society, and we need to be thinking about our larger place in it. This does not belong to us; we belong to it.

In Chapter 12, you present an ambitious plan on climate and the environment for the 44th president’s first 100 days that was developed by the Presidential Climate Action Project (a reconvening of President Clinton’s President’s Council on Sustainable Development). President Obama certainly fell short here, but how would you evaluate his environmental and energy efforts so far?

It seems to me that he’s having to adjust to the realities of politics. The president does not have the power of a king. I do think that, within the whole apparatus of government – the executive, legislative, and judicial branches – he probably gets this as well as anybody… with the possible exception of John Holdren, his science adviser. Yet, you’ve got the whole apparatus that he’s got to pull along with him, and it’s too big a job for one man.

Do you agree with the administration’s own assessment that it’s done more of substance in these areas thus far than most previous administrations?

Oh, no question about that. The president truly gets it, perhaps better than his own advisers. The Presidential Climate Action Plan was reviewed with John Podesta during the transition period, and, so far, every position Obama has taken has been consistent with that document. I don’t know that he’s read it, but, so far, he’s very consistent with it. I know Podesta’s read it, so there’s some hope that all of the effort by the Presidential Climate Action Project was not in vain. We had 100 people working for two years, so there’s hope that some good would come of that.

What can (or should) the environmental movement learn from business (in general, and from businesses striving for sustainability)?

I think the environmental movement could learn from business the power of the customer. The environmental movement needs the people on board: demonstrations won’t get the job done. There needs to be more positive affirmation, and engaging people right down where they live. They want to build a broad consensus around these issues at the grassroots level… that’s what they can learn from business. Business responds to the marketplace, and the environmental movement needs to learn to shape that marketplace.

The phrase “love on the factory floor” really stuck in my head (along with the anecdote from which it sprung). How does “love” come into play in building and running a successful company?

(Chuckles) Well, our people love their company. You know, there are several Greek words for love: philios is one – that’s brotherly love. Eros is another… that’s sexual love. And agape is another one – that is the love for another human being without the brotherly or sexual connotations. I think that the kind of love that works in an industrial organization is brotherly love: this is our own, this is our home away from home, this is where we make our living, and we all love what we do. But if you expect people to love what they do, you’ve got to make what they do lovable. And I think when you bring “Tomorrow’s Child” (a poem written by an Interface employee in response to the company’s sustainability initiatives) into play, and the love of a parent for a child, it’s that kind of love that brings people together. If you hold up a purpose that’s noble enough, then people embrace that higher purpose, and it brings them together. Now, that’s probably another kind of love, and I don’t know the Greek word for it… but I can define it as “This is our thing, and we’re doing the right thing, and there’s no question about that.”

My thanks to Ray Anderson for his time and thoughtful answers…

Image credit: MacMillan