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Meet Ray Anderson, the Green Industrialist

5 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Think of a green businessman and Ray Anderson isn’t likely to be the first to come to mind. He’s not a fresh-out-of-business-school, Silicon Valley visionary — he’s well over 70 years old, and his accent marks him as a lifelong Georgian. He doesn’t make solar panels or wind turbines or cellulosic biofuel. His company, Interface, manufactures carpet tiles, which is about as ordinary as you can get. But Fortune has described Anderson as “America’s greenest CEO,” and the title fits, because there is no one else in the corporate world who has so taken to heart the essential lessons of sustainability — and then put them into practice. “From my experience, it’s a false choice between the economy and ecology,” Anderson told me recently. “We can have both — and we have to have both.”

Anderson came to green passions relatively late in his business life. He’d started Interface from scratch in 1973, and by the mid-1990s built it into a major player, generating nearly $1 billion a year in revenues. The environment wasn’t on Anderson’s radar screen; Interface complied with government regulations, but never went further. But in the 1990s, customers started asking him about the environmental impact of his business, and in 1994 he read a book called The Ecology of Commerce by the environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, which criticized the tremendous waste in much of industry. “It was a spear in my chest,” Anderson told me.

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That was his Damascus moment. He asked his engineers to calculate the company’s environmental footprint, and he was shocked to discover that Interface needed over 1 billion lb. (455 million kg) of raw materials, mostly oil and natural gas, to support its business. Anderson put Interface on the road to sustainability, ruthlessly cutting waste and increasing the use of recycling. Today he says Interface is on a path to achieving a closed-loop business system, taking no more from the earth than it returns. “Our products are the best they’ve ever been, and so are our people,” Anderson says. “People need a higher purpose to identify with, and this is the biggest purpose there is.”

That kind of language sets Anderson apart from other green businesspeople. Cutting waste, getting efficient — that’s something nearly every smart company knows it needs to do in an era of declining natural resources. No less a behemoth than Walmart — which recorded over $400 billion in revenue last year — is now lauded by many environmentalists for its efforts to green its vast global supply chain. Some of the smartest minds in the environmental world are trying to take advantage of the concentration of global corporate power by pushing major industry leaders to go green as a group. A significant shift on the part a Walmart or the agricultural giant Cargill could have a far greater and faster global impact than the slow process of international climate diplomacy or national action in a gridlocked country like the U.S. “If we are going to manage the planet, the private sector needs to step up and do this out of their own interest,” Jason Clay, senior vice president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, told me recently.

(Read “Too Big for Its Riches.”)

But that’s not quite why Anderson decided to go green. Anderson talks about business as a test in morality — one he believes most American businesspeople are failing. He refers to himself as a “recovered plunderer,” because he believes that any company that makes money by taking more from the earth than it gives back is doing just that — plundering the planet. “Theft is a crime,” Anderson told the TED conference in 2009. “And the theft of our children’s future would someday be considered a crime.”

This is radical stuff. It makes sense that Anderson’s recent memoir was called Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, because that’s exactly what he is. It’s a message that corporate America needs to hear — that the only kind of true growth is sustainable growth, and that everything else is essentially a Ponzi scheme. “It’s up to us, it’s up to the private sector, to change this world,” Anderson says.

For years, Anderson made it his mission to push that idea: both of his books have been about sustainable business and he delivers over 150 speeches a year, keeping him on message and in the public eye. Though he’s been slowed down recently by cancer and heavy chemotherapy treatments, he hopes to get back on the road soon — and indeed, he believes his legacy depends on that. “I have two daughters, but Interface is the son I never had,” he says. “The goals we’ve set will remain the same and that vision will last.” Anderson is doing all he can — now the country and the world need other business leaders to follow his example.

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