A maverick CEO makes the case for sustainability
by Alex Mulcahy
In 1994, Ray Anderson, the CEO of an industrial carpet manufacturing company, faced a task he dreaded: delivering a speech to his workers about his company’s environmental policy. The problem was that his company, Interface Inc., didn’t have an environmental policy. They weren’t breaking any laws; wasn’t that enough? A friend recommended reading a book called The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken to help him prepare. Reading it, Anderson said, was like a spear through his chest. He realized that, as the founder and CEO of a billion-dollar company, he had the respect of his peers, but future generations might think of him differently. They might view him as a plunderer.
This epiphany not only changed his life, it revolutionized his approach to business. He set a lofty goal: Interface would aspire to Mission Zero, the company initiative to do business without using any oil or creating any waste, by the year 2020. Once his workers accepted the challenge to “climb Mount Sustainability,” an unimagined creativity was tapped.
Though, by Anderson’s own measure, Interface still has a long way to go, the steps it’s made are astounding. Since 1994, Interface has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 72 percent. (Keep in mind that the “business-killing” Kyoto Protocol—which not a single senator voted in favor of—asked for a mere 7 percent reduction.) Interface has also reduced pollution, increased its use of renewable energy and introduced a first-of-its-kind carpet recycling program.
The results have been impressive, perhaps even surprising to some. As waste and pollution went down, profitability—and market share—went up. That’s the message he wants to bring to every business: his company is proof that you can do well by doing good.
Anderson has now written his second book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, which chronicles his journey so far, and will be the keynote speaker at the 350.org Climate Awareness Rally on October 24 at 1 p.m. on the Mall of the Constitution Center. Grid called the radical industrialist to ask a few questions.
What is your affiliation with 350.org?
I know Bill McKibben [the founder of 350.org]. We’re sort of kindred spirits. I happen to agree with his premise—as do some other people who are far more important than I am. And then there’s the event coming up there in Philadelphia, and my Interface people who are there overseeing it have become rather deeply involved in putting together the program, and managed to get me invited.
What kind of advice would you give to a business that is on the verge of beginning a sustainability initiative? They’re hedging, maybe they should, maybe they shouldn’t…
Then they definitely should not. They better know it’s the thing to do before they undertake to do it, because it changes everything in your world. So, if you’re not ready for a drastic change in your world, just stick with the status quo. When you wise up, and are ready to make the commitment, then come on in—the water’s great. But the sustainability commitment is a commitment of a lifetime.
You do about 150 speaking engagements a year. What kind of crowds do you generally speak to?
It’s all over the map. From the environmental community, the converted, the choir, to… the top management of an industrial company. To me, the bigger the business audience, the better, because that’s where the leverage is.
Are your fellow industrialists receptive to your message?
Yeah, they’re listening with great interest. It’s like it’s one mind at a time, one company at a time. It’s like pulling hens’ teeth. I haven’t found a way to do it faster. But every now and then, there’s a very important company that does it, like Walmart. And Walmart got on this course and told 60,000 suppliers that this is where they are going. That’s a lot of heads.
Do you think that a company like Walmart can be considered sustainable if they are obviously relying so much on imported goods, and customers driving to their stores, among many other transgressions?
Well, you know, we all begin where we are. We don’t have the choice of beginning somewhere else. We begin where we are, and we go from here. I think Walmart’s intentions are the very best they can be, and they will evolve to realize those intentions. They can’t just jump into it—you jump into it whole hog and you’ll go broke. That’s not sustainable. And by the way, there aren’t any sustainable companies yet. Probably not any sustainable products either. They may be a little bit less unsustainable day by day, moving in that direction.
It takes a lot of courage to change the course you are on.
Twice in my life I’ve seen an idea so big that I could not deny it. The first time is when I saw carpet tiles. That is so right, so smart, I thought. It took me five years to actually do it. We created Interface to make carpet tiles. And then when I realized what sustainability really meant, it was very much the same feeling. That it is so right, so smart, and we’re going to do this. End of discussion. And then the discussion begins. What? How do you do that?
You could retire. Do you have any plans to step down in the near future?
I plan to stay around to climb Mount Sustainability. Eleven years from now is the target date.
Let’s just say 30 or 40 years from now, when you’ve climbed Mount Sustainability and want to spend a little more time in your vacation house…
In my dreams, I have 30 or 40 years! I really do love what I do. I think that’s what the people of Interface feel, too—that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. We all have this higher purpose, and that feels good.