Last month (8/10/11) we lost a true pioneer in sustainability, Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpet the world’s largest producer of modular commercial floor coverings known to most of us as carpet tiles. In 1994 he read Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce and had an epiphany. Mr Anderson realized that his business used too much energy, used too much water while damaging the regional water supply and relied almost exclusively on fossil fuel based petrochemicals to make his product. Much like my own journey of sustainability, he saw the destruction and long term consequences of our rampant pursuit of profit and economic gain at the expense of natural resources, our lack of stewardship of our local communities and economies, and the utter wastefulness of American life and our manufacturing processes. Instant gratification, greed, and the pursuit of “I get mine first” profit does not make for a healthy and vibrant United States of America.
As a Georgia Tech industrial engineer and starting his 22nd year with the company, Mr. Anderson sought to reinvent his business using principles of sustainability(1):
- Cradle to cradle manufacturing – once the useful life of a product is complete, recycle the product into source material for something else – this is closed loop system thinking
- Do more with less (in this case using fewer natural or non-renewable resources like fossil fuels to make nylon fiber, invest in renewable energy)
- Reduce and recycle all waste streams. All systems use resources that create waste as a bi-product. Identify the waste streams and then figure out innovative ways to reuse the “waste” product, such as taking waste heat from equipment and preheating hotwater supplies.
Ray Anderson made this commitment while also promising to keep the company profitable (hence financial sustainability), work collaboratively with his employees (growing human capital) and maintain high design and product standards in the process (true long term sustainability). What was the result of this mid-career epiphany and “dumping of the apple cart”?
- Return on shareholder value – since 1994 doubled earnings, saved $450 million in costs and increased sales by 63% (2)
- Shared the knowledge through two books, several movies and serving on many boards and commissions including the co-chair of the first President’s Council on Sustainable Development.
- Established the “Mission Zero” program at Interface to demonstrate the company’s collaborative dedication to “. . . . eliminate any negative impact Interface has on theEnvironment by 2020”(3). Ray Anderson thought the company was about halfway to the goal inthe Fall of 2010.
Ray Anderson left quite a legacy behind, a changed landscape and way of doing business in the country and even the world. If a medium size carpet company in Atlanta Georgia can do it, so can all of us. It just takes courage, vision and determination.
Having been inspired by Ray Anderson for many years, all of us at TerraLogos: eco architecture continue to work toward creating a more sustainable and just community here in Baltimore and beyond.
We have adopted the 2030 Challenge to reduce energy use by 50% by 2015 in all of our work, and are working to revitalize communities in Baltimore City through sustainable design and active community engagement. If you would like to learn more about Ray Anderson’s legacy or our work in sustainable design and development please contact us or take a look at our website.
Here’s to you Ray Anderson, you will be greatly missed and thank you for your vision, courage and dedication to making the world a better place!
(1) As outlined in The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken (1990)