Green Business Champion Ray Anderson Dies At 77

Renowned and much loved green business champion Ray Anderson died on Monday from cancer at the age of 77.

Anderson founded the modular carpet company Interface (Nasdaq: IFSIA) in 1973, and credits reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce in 1994, as a life changing experience. As he’s said in his countless speeches after he became a "radical industrialist," reading that book drove a stake through his heart as he realized the role his company played in destroying our planet.

He promised Interface would "be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits – by 2020 – and in doing so, to become restorative through the power of influence."

Those were the early days of sustainable business practices, when it wasn’t easy pushing Interface up "Mount Sustainability" and convincing other corporations to do the same.

He relentlessly pushed Interface toward a goal of "mission zero," – having a zero environmental footprint by 2020, even in the face of very difficult business conditions. Interface is now a billion dollar company and the world’s top manufacturer of  carpet tiles.

Interface pioneered the use of carpet tiles, where individual warn or stained tiles are replaced and recycled instead of throwing the entire carpet away. And it pioneered the use of recycled and bio-based materials in carpet, and the use of closed-loop manufacturing processes which eliminate waste and emissions.

Carpeting – a ubiquitous petroleum-based product – uses immense resources, produces toxic emissions in manufacturing and use, and is a huge waste problem at end-of-life.

Along with significantly reducing the company’s footprint (it’s half way to mission zero), Interface influenced the industry as a whole to develop a carpet recycling infrastructure and to green its operations and products. 

Here’s how he spoke about the climb to the top of Mount Sustainability. "It is an arduous, but rewarding, journey. Every foothold gained begins with a self-questioning analysis of our processes and materials and the determination to achieve even better results with less, and ultimately, no impact on our environment."

"For many companies, the first and most difficult step on that climb is not on the mountain itself, but rather admitting that the mountain exists. We see the mountain and we’re climbing it. We have laid out a path to sustainability on Seven Fronts, you might say the seven faces of the mountain:

Eliminate Waste: Eliminate all forms of waste in every area of business;

Benign Emissions: Eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities;

Renewable Energy: Operate facilities with renewable energy sources – solar, wind, landfill gas, biomass and low impact hydroelectric;

Close the Loop: Redesign processes and products to close the technical loop using recovered and bio-based materials;

Resource-Efficient Transportation: Transport people and products efficiently to reduce waste and emissions;

Sensitize Stakeholders: Create a culture that integrates sustainability principles and improves people’s lives and livelihoods;

Redesign Commerce: Create a new business model that demonstrates and supports the value of sustainability-based commerce.

He saw the laws and regulations that govern commerce – which subsidize unsustainable industrial processes – as its biggest problem. "We will need the cooperation of government and other industrial partners to shift taxation away from economic and social benefits, (labor, income and investment) to detriments, (pollution, waste, and the loss of primary resources)."

In his column, More Happiness, Less Stuff, written in May 2011, he says: 

So what about this sacred shrine of growth and affluence, the one that fuels the extractive, abusive and linear technologies upon which we have become so dependent?  How do we make the shift?  How do we decide, if we are moving toward a sustainable society, what should grow?  What should not grow?

Here are some thoughts to stimulate our thinking:  The lowest impact technologies, those that are beneficial, (belong in the denominator), should grow.  The abusive "numerator technologies" should shrink and eventually disappear.  The sale of services should grow.  The sale of products should shrink.  Applied brainpower should grow.  Applied brute force should shrink.  Market shares for the sustainable companies should grow.  For the unsustainable companies, market shares should shrink-to zero.

Anderson delivered over 1,500 speeches on sustainability and Interface won just about every sustainability award, including our own SB20: The World’s Most Sustainable Stocks.

He wrote two must-read books: Mid-Course Correction, Toward a Sustainable Enterprise – The Interface Model (1999) and Confessions Of A Radical Industrialist (2009), which was recently released in paperback as Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.

Here’s an excerpt from his book, which couldn’t be more appropriate today:

"Most of the time, when I make an environmental speech, I’m ‘preaching to the choir.’ Yet I am greatly encouraged and believe the choir is growing, that the global brain is waking up. The number of "alarm clocks" to wake us is growing, too.

So, to this swelling number, I continue to say that we are all part of the continuum of humanity and the web of life in general. We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum, that web, and the Earth that sustains all life. Which will it be? It’s your call.

Each of us is one in 5.8 billion (at this writing, but growing); yet all of us at Interface are 7,000 in 5.8 billion, more than one in a million. But Interface is 1/33,000 of the global economy. DuPont and BASF, both 50 times bigger, our major suppliers, are each 1/600! All of us are resource intensive, so together we have an even bigger impact than our numbers suggest. As a company, Interface can make an immense difference by setting an example. If DuPont and BASF join in, too, we can make a colossal difference!

You, too, have influence. You have the power of one. Your organization has influence, too – the collective influence of one and one and one. Knowledge, deep (not superficial) knowledge, getting well up that curve, comes first. Doing (taking action) must follow – in your personal lives and at work. Knowledge and action are critical. They give creditability and validity to your examples and to your influence, which can spread and grow without limit.

Current Interface President and CEO Dan Hendrix announced Anderson’s death, saying: "Not only did Interface and the world lose a great man today, but I lost a friend and mentor. Ray’s iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future."

Watch a clip of Ray Anderson:

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Comments on “Green Business Champion Ray Anderson Dies At 77”

  1. kurt rummel

    My Heart is filled with deep sadness for the loss and at the same time a sense of gratitude that such a man existed. I have been deeply inspired by Ray Andersen and his influence to push for a deep and truly sustainable business model and economy.

  2. Henning Drager

    RIP Ray Anderson – you have moved mountains and it is up to us now to continue his important work! Wishing everybody at Interface much strength and the vision to move forward in Ray’s spirit.


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