Last week, sustainable business pioneer (and a personal hero of mine) Ray Anderson lost his battle with cancer. Founder and longtime CEO of Interface, Ray was a pioneer from the outset. A commercial flooring company, Interface brought the carpet square to the United States. At age sixty, after nearly two decades of success, Ray could’ve retired to a house on the golf course and lived out his golden years in luxury. Instead, after reading Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce,” this established businessman had an epiphany (or, as he liked to call it, a “spear in the chest” moment): he had found success and made his fortune by plundering the Earth’s resources. Ray committed himself and his company to big, hairy, audacious goals concerning their environmental impact, and made amazing strides in an industry that’s traditionally been very resource and energy intensive.
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.