As many of you in sustainability-obsessed circles have likely already heard, we lost a pioneer and a giant in the field the other day with the passing of Ray Anderson, CEO of the Georgia-based industrial carpet company Interface Inc., which Ray spent the last 15 years of his life turning into a test lab for sustainable industrial operations. Along the way, Ray basically invented corporate sustainability and provided the business world’s best and brightest example to point to when a green practice was labelled impossible, which they almost always are at first.

Profiles, obituaries and remembrances of Ray have already poured in from people who knew him far better than I did. (Here is MNN's own, as well as a heartfelt one from Joel Makower.) As a sort of addendum, I’ll tell you why I think Ray Anderson was one of the half-dozen most important figures in the whole sustainability movement, a prime candidate for a place on sustainability’s global Rushmore (Ray himself often called it “Mount Sustainability”).

I came to this sustainability beat by accident, though in retrospect it was inevitable. The questions I started asking as a journalist ten years ago had to end up being asked of people like Ray Anderson, because they were the only people who’d yet attempted to answer them in any serious way. I’d begun with the mindblowing scale of the climate change problem, which I came quickly to see as a crisis verging on existential for humanity and thus as the defining challenge of our time.

I started writing a little and reading a lot about the problem, and all I found were darker and darker shades of impending doom, piling up like apocalyptic thunderheads on the horizon. Was this truly – as another inspired Georgian once put it – the end of the world as we know it?

I began the work that was eventually published under the title The Geography of Hope around 2001 or so by turning the question on its head. If this nonrenewable fossil-fueled system was doomed, what system wasn’t? Were there concrete solutions out there? Who had them? What did they look like? I came upon the phrase sustainability again and again in those inquiries – at least as often as green or eco-friendly – and I soon came to understand that the sustainability-minded people seemed to be working much closer to the drive wheels of this enormous industrial contraption of ours. They weren’t as interested in saving the planet as they were in saving us, not so much protecting the environment from us as protecting us from ourselves.

I soon uncovered the evolving story of Interface and Ray Anderson’s pioneering commitment to turn his industrial carpet company – a business that turned toxic chemicals (PVC and nylon) into nonbiodegradable petrochemical waste (modular carpet tiles) as its core industrial function, if you were looking at it from a life-cycle point of view, as Ray had begun to – into the first sustainable multinational corporation on earth.

I finally made a pilgrimage to Georgia myself in 2005. Ray was unavailable, but I met with his R&D team at their facility in LaGrange. They’d just unveiled “Cool Blue,” a machine that could turn used carpeting into new industrial carpet backing. The backing on Interface’s carpets was to that point made exclusively of virgin PVC, the most problematic substance in its production chain, and Cool Blue eliminated it entirely while closing the life-cycle loop on old carpet tiles.

Later, I was taken to see the carpet-tile production line nearby by Interface’s R&D VP, John Bradford, where he explained a highly technical change I never did completely understand that eliminated a substantial amount of nylon waste from the whole process. For some obscure reason, it looked like an added cost to Interface’s accountants, but the R&D engineers were certain it’d be a savings – after all, it reduced the required amount of the most expensive raw material, nylon thread.

Never mind the technical specs. The key thing for me was the way Bradford described it:

The only way that you could get the real answer was by jumping completely off of that cliff – with no straddle, you know, keeping nothing on the rock, so to speak, and being in complete freefall, 100 percent there. So that you could change the measurement system and really know. But any time that you were half here and half there, you could never really know . . . So finally we came down and basically said, ‘I believe this, and we’re goin’.’ And sure enough it was right.
This is the essence of the jump from an unsustainable system to a sustainable one, and it only happens when there is a wholesale commitment to change. And this, more than anything, is what Ray Anderson brought to the corporate world: he demonstrated the viability of a wholesale commitment to sustainability. He made the business case for sustainability. He never wavered or backstepped or hedged. Under his leadership, Interface’s R&D engineers were empowered to tell the accountants that doing things sustainably was more important than making the numbers add up under an accounting system that had failed to include the costs of waste, toxicity, a world full of landfills full of old carpet tiles that slowly leached toxins into the soil over hundreds or thousands of years.

Ray Anderson launched this jump, so the story went, because he was starting to think about his legacy. In the early 1990s, he was coming up on retirement age, and he wondered what he’d be passing on to his children and grandchildren. Reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, Ray came to realize that by any measure other than the short-term yardstick of a quarterly earnings report, his legacy was toxic landfill. He made Interface’s sustainability commitment before anyone had a clue what the term meant to a multinational corporate industrial enterprise.

And now? His legacy is many things, but first and foremost it is one of a pioneer making that first jump off the cliff, risking the fall, hoping there would be firm ground on the far side. And then finding it. In a 2009 video progress report to his employees, Ray claimed Interface was 60 percent of the way up the steep face of Mount Sustainability after 60 percent of his original timeline had elapsed, and he was certain the company would reach the summit – Ray’s “Mission Zero” goal of zero toxins, zero waste, zero emissions – by 2020.

The video is below; here are a couple of key passages from Ray’s speech:

The business case for sustainability has emerged very clearly. We know at Interface our costs are down, not up. So that dispels a myth and exposes a false choice between the environment and the economy. . . . Our products, through the inspiration of biomimicry and the wellspring of innovation that has come out of the idea of sustainable design, the lens of sustainable design, has made our products better than ever. And then, as I’ve said so many times, the good will of the marketplace is astonishing. There is no amount of slick advertising at any cost that we could have done that would have created the good will that this effort has created. I mean, you’re talking about authenticity at its very best. This is a better way to make a bigger profit.
An activist or politician or even a green consultant like Paul Hawken can make this point a thousand times over, and the corporate world may simply shrug. All well and feel-good, they might say, but as the Once-ler told Dr. Seuss’s lecturing Lorax, “business is business, and business must grow.” But to hear this argument from a wildly successful CEO, on the far side of a jump many thought was folly? This is the kind of stuff that has brought sustainability to the mainstream of business conversations (if not quite yet of all business practices).

A couple of years ago, I saw Ray Anderson speak here in southern Alberta, at an invite-only corporate breakfast at the Chateau Lake Louise, an enchanted castle of a hotel tucked into one of the most awesome natural environments on the planet – the shore of an improbably blue lake at the base of a Rocky Mountain glacier.

Ray would eventually get to all the Mount Sustainability stuff, but first he invited everyone in the room to join him in closing their eyes. The assembled corporate VPs and senior managers – a good many oil-and-gas industry reps among them, this being Alberta – all did so. So did I.

This is what Ray told us to do. Close your eyes, he said, and imagine your place of greatest peace, the place you’d most like to be right now. Imagine calm, relaxation, contentment and joy. Now raise your hand if the place you’re imagining is outdoors, somewhere in nature. Nearly every hand in the room went up. Mine did. Ray’s did. He had everyone in the room right where he wanted them – their priorities recalibrated from profit and loss to balance and stewardship and a climb up Mount Sustainability.

I hope Ray’s in that place now, the tranquil summit of Mount Sustainability or wherever it was he imagined himself to be at his most content. He earned it. His legacy – for him, for me, for the little girl with us in the picture above – is that we are all closer to the top for his having been here, leading the way.

To trade climbing stories 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

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