Planet Earth has lost a hero.
Business visionary Ray Anderson passed away last week. Anderson called himself a "radical industrialist." From the perspective of traditional conservatism, however, there was nothing radical about Anderson's drive to reduce waste and be a good steward of the natural endowment that supports his carpet business and every other business in the world. Nothing radical about practical household management. Only in a world in which depletion is equated to income would Anderson's sustainability initiatives be considered radical.
In 1973, Anderson founded Interface, Inc. to produce European-style carpet tiles for the U.S. office and institutional markets. For the first 21 years of Interface's existence, it was just another energy-intensive carpet company, turning petrochemicals into floor coverings. In 1994, Anderson read Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, and had what he called his "spear in the chest" moment about the resources his company was consuming and the wastes it was leaving behind.
(Right: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose--Doing Business by Respecting the Earth, by Ray Anderson.)
From that point forward, Anderson became a crusader. As he told the 2009 TED conference, he realized that business had gotten the world into this mess of "digging up the earth and converting it to pollution." Business is "the only institution large enough, pervasive enough, and powerful enough" to fix the problem. Interface would be an example for other businesses. Under Anderson's leadership, Interface set a goal. By 2020, Interface would generate no pollution, produce no net waste, operate entirely on renewable energy, and would live, like a wise investor, entirely on interest from the planet's principal. The company would become "restorative," putting back what it takes out, while thriving economically all the same.
Anderson took his message about restorative business on the road while overseeing Interface's transition to a new business model where "extractive must be replaced by renewable, linear by cyclical."
How has the company performed? As of 2010, Interface's greenhouse gas emissions were down 44 percent from the 1996 baseline, waste sent to landfills was down 77 percent, energy and water use per square yard of product were down 43 percent and 80 percent, respectively. Total avoided waste costs: $455 million.
Still, there's a ways to go. Interface is still figuring out closing its materials loop - making the shift from virgin carpet fiber produced from petrochemicals to fibers sourced from recycling and plant-based materials.
Interface is doing well on the economic as well as the environmental side of the coin. It is moving into overseas markets, and has branched out from the office sector to design products for residential and other commercial markets. Even in a squishy economy, Interface is making money, with sales recovering from a 2009 trough and profits equal to 10 percent of net sales last year.
Always looking ahead, Anderson talked about further reframing of the Western economic model, with affluence as a means to an end rather than an end itself. "More happiness with less stuff," he told the TED audience, is the best long-term survival strategy for the human species as long as it's enmeshed in the "web of life."
Farewell, Ray, and thanks for pointing the way forward.
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