Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist
Ray C. Anderson
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In 1994, Ray Anderson was 60 years old and at the top of his game as founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Interface, Inc., a modular carpet company that makes those clever carpet tiles that you may have underfoot in your office or coveted via the company's residential brand, FLOR.
That was 17 years ago - before 'green' was the compelling business imperative that it is today (for reference, oil was then $18/bbl), and frankly, the environment was nowhere on Ray's radar. An Interface associate asked Ray to give a speech to a task force that was forming to answer customer concerns about environmental impacts, and though he had not a clue what he would say, he accepted. As the date for the speech grew closer, he began to sweat -- and then Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, landed on his desk. The rest is green business history -- Ray read the book (he's called it a 'spear in the chest' epiphany), his outlook was radically transformed, and he gave a speech that would put the petroleum-dependent carpet company on a path to zero environmental footprint.
What's happened in the intervening years has made Interface the poster child for green business, and Ray's become a bit of an eco rock star. He ditched his gas-guzzling Jaguar in favor of a Prius, built an off-the-grid home, and today, at 76, his life is radically different than what he would have imagined for himself at age 60. This is his story.
But does drilling more, to give an addict more of what he’s addicted to, make sense? Should we raise mileage standards? Impose a carbon tax? Politically, can we do anything that will raise prices when folks are already having a hard time making ends meet? If we did raise gas prices with taxes to discourage driving, how should the tax revenues be used? We humans have woven such a tangled web that we can’t see our way clear to untangle any one knot without making the others worse. That is why ending our addiction to oil is the key.
If we exaggerate or mislead—even just a little bit—we could undo all the good work that’s gone into them. Nothing is more important than getting the numbers right. ” Touring our facilities across the globe, Buddy found out pretty quickly that not all of them were created equal. At the best plants, waste was putting a one dollar “waste tax” on every square yard of carpet they produced. But at others it was three, even four times that. You can see why imposing an across-the-board dollar goal—say, eliminating fifty cents of waste per square yard—would be a whole lot easier at an inefficient factory than at a thrifty one.
Those have provided much of the substantive content of this book. So, thank you, my dearest wife and best friend, for your sacrifices that made this book possible. Others whose significant contributions I want to acknowledge are: Lisa Lilienthal, Interface’s publicist, and Jo Ann Bachman, my scheduling assistant, who have been constant and dedicated teammates in helping me tell the Interface story around the world, evaluating speaking and interview opportunities, and getting me there and back safely and successfully.
They only concentrate the problem. We can’t throw used filters away and comply with the first two rules of sustainability. Remember? There is no “away. ” All contaminants disperse. We would just be moving it off-site and handing our problem to someone else, creating the kind of externality we criticize in others. “End-of-pipe” solutions, like filtration and scrubbing, are unsustainable. They are just necessary and temporary bridges to better, longer-term solutions. As architect and sustainability pioneer Bill McDonough has written in Cradle to Cradle: “We need to move those filters from the ends of our pipes and smokestacks and put them into our brains, to redesign our products and our processes intelligently.
In short, we are moving closer and closer to running our factories as “plants,” and even growing our own raw materials—not like plants, but as plants—and running all of it on sunlight. Furthermore, the corn we use to make PLA will not cut into the supply of food for people; it can all be #2, nonfood grade. (#2 corn has more moisture, more damaged kernels, and more foreign matter in it than food-grade corn. ) How far have we taken this concept? Interface introduced its first commercial modular carpet products blending PLA fibers with nylon during the 2004 NeoCon Trade Fair in Chicago.