Ray Anderson has been called the “greenest CEO in America” for his uncompromising advocacy of zero-waste manufacturing. In the 1990s — after his now well-known epiphany over industry’s impact on the environment — he reorganized the Fortune 500 company that he’d founded around the principles of the “Natural Step” manufacturing philosophy.
Interface enjoyed healthy growth over the next decade and a half. At the same time, the company cut waste and pollution (by more than half, according to most measures) and claims to be on track to eliminating its waste and pollution by 2020.
The transition gave Anderson a dramatic story to tell as he made his own transition from day-to-day operation of the company to environmental visionary — both for Interface and for much of American industry.
“Without a doubt, the business case [for reinventing industry] is crystal clear,” he told me in an April interview. “Our costs are down — never can get enough of that. Our products are better than they ever have been, because of biomimicry. Our people are united around this. … And, of course, there’s so much good will in the market.”
While reporting about sustainability in Georgia, I crossed paths with Anderson on four or five occasions. What most struck me was his ability to be blunt about the severity of the environmental crisis while at the same time to maintain the upbeat courtliness of a Southern executive.
In that April interview, the ailing Atlanta native expressed both optimism and frustration over whether his message was being heard. On one hand, he said, the political system is doing little to push the transition of industry toward sustainability. On the other hand, a “co-evolution of education and environment” is helping to change the outlook of the next generation of leaders.
“The people who are now in their 20s, getting out of school, 20 or 30 years from now, they’re just going to have a very different approach,” he said. “And I think they’re going to get there in the nick of time.”
Though he was a 1956 Georgia Tech honors graduate in industrial engineering (who was granted an honorary doctorate by the school just last week), Anderson’s personality seemed customized to the role of entrepreneurial CEO. He was a gifted pitchman and an outside-the-box thinker — who twice revolutionized his own industry.
The first of those innovations came in the 1970s, when he founded Interface to become the first manufacturer of modular carpet tiles. The company quickly became one the largest publicly held carpet makers.
Anderson is known more broadly for his decision in 1990s to climb what he called “Mount Sustainability.” Other leaders in the Georgia-centered carpet industry have followed suit with their own sustainability programs, although none has made as dramatic a commitment as Anderson.
Like many a businessman facing many a challenge, Anderson focused on environmental issues only after he became aware of a problem in the marketplace: A sales manager in California told him in 1994 that clients were asking questions about the company’s environmental impact that the sales team couldn’t answer.
Anderson established an environmental task force, whose task became more ambitious when the CEO began reading a book on the topic called the "Ecology of Commerce," by Paul Hawken. He never seemed to tire of recounting the “spear in the chest” he felt as he read the book.
The company set about to reorient its entire culture around the Natural Step process advocated by Hawken. It embraced the concept of reworking all its processes and even its approach to designing products to move toward an elimination of all waste and pollution; Anderson called that Mission zero.
Anderson wasn’t shy to use his new-found prominence in sustainability circles to tell his company’s story. He was named to co-chair of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development during the Clinton administration. Major profiles about him appeared in, among other places, Fortune, The New York Times and Time, which in 2007 also named him one of its “Heroes of the Environment.” Over the next decade, he spoke to at least 1,000 audiences on environmental issues.
Anderson gave many of those speeches after he’d learned in late 2009 of his illness. In those last 20 months, his message didn’t seem to change — although to the listener, it may have gained in poignancy.
He was hesitant to speak publicly of his illness, citing the implications it might have for a public company. But in an updated introduction to his latest book, "Business Lessons of a Radical Industrialist," he had this to say about the personal challenge he was facing:
“Cancer is no fun. If you don’t receive the right treatment, you die; and even with the very best treatment you can still die. I seem to be receiving the right treatment; though the very best results one can hope for, complete remission (which I am nowhere near yet), leave one knowing it can recur, maybe in a different part of the body as a metastasis, or maybe in a mutated form.”
This article was reprinted with permission from the Green Building Chronicle.
* * *
Below are interviews that Chuck Leavell, co-founder of MNN, conducted with the legendary green business leader in 2009.