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Conversations with people… and encounters with ideas… that are re-inventing the world.

Ray Anderson: Creating the Green Corporation (February 18, 2007)

Posted on Aug 11, 2011

“I’d like to see the business case for fishing the stocks to the point of collapse,” Ray Anderson declares. “I’d like to see the business case for destroying the ozone layer. What kind of a system do we have, where we think it’s cheaper to destroy the Earth than to take care of it?”

The Attentive Reader of this column already knows about Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface Corporation, a global carpet company. Interface aims to become the world’s first truly sustainable industrial corporation, and a model for industrial transformation.
 
Anderson spoke in Halifax recently for the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Nova Scotia Association of Architects, and I also interviewed him privately. At 73, he radiates energy, intensity and charm.
 
His journey to sustainability began 13 years ago, when his sales people – who deal mainly with architects and designers – told him that customers were asking about Interface’s environmental policy. Anderson had no policy, and barely understood the question.
 
“We obey the law,” he said. “What other policy could there be?”
 
But the customers were insistent. The staff formed an environmental task group and asked him to kick it off with a speech setting forth his own environmental vision.
 
“I didn’t have one,” Anderson recalls. Then a colleague gave him Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce.
 
“That book was like a spear in my chest,” Anderson says. “I read it, and I wept. I read passages to my wife, and we both wept.
 
“Hawkens makes three points, and he makes them very powerfully. One, the life support system is in decline. Two, the biggest culprit is the industrial system, which is a linear process of take-make-waste. Three, the only force big enough and powerful enough to turn this around is also business and industry.
 
“So I used Hawkens to make my speech, and I had everybody weeping. And I said, if business and industry have to lead, who will lead business and industry? Why not us?”
 
Anderson challenged his people to transform Interface into “a restorative enterprise” which would not only do no harm to the earth, but would help to heal it. Over the ensuing months and years, Interface developed a seven-part model which Anderson believes can transform any enterprise.
 
The first task is to eliminate waste – which Anderson defines as “anything we don’t do right the first time. There’s no such thing as ‘waste’ in nature. One organism’s waste is another’s food. Well, the amount we’ve saved by eliminating waste pays for everything else we’ve been doing.”
 
The second step is to eliminate harmful emissions not only at Interface, but at all the companies which supply it. As Anderson puts it, “you are your supply chain, right back to the mines and the oil wells.” Next, use energy extremely efficently, substitute renewable energy wherever possible, and then re-imagine and re-invent your processes to require less energy. A new way of printing patterns on Interface carpets, for example, dramatically reduced energy and water use, and ultimately produced a better carpet.
 
Fourth, substitute recycled or biodegradable materials for new ones. Fifth, reduce the demands of transportation. Locate factories close to markets. Don’t travel when you don’t have to – use videoconferencing, for instance – and drive the most efficient vehicles you can. Then use “offsets” to close your carbon debt. Interface plants enough trees every year to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by its vehicles.
 
“That costs us 2.5 cents a gallon,” says Anderson. “It’s nothing. You know, creating and selling offsets is an entrepreneur’s paradise. It’s a whole new industry.”
 
The sixth step is “the sensitivity hook-up,” getting employees, suppliers and customers committed to new ways of thinking, replacing confrontation with co-operation, emulating nature. Anderson once sent Interface designers into the forest to see what nature created for a carpet. They came back and reported that no two square feet of the forest floor were alike, but that the overall effect was a pleasing and calming one.
 
That insight led to a new design of random-patterned carpet tiles in earth colours, which turned out to have numerous advantages. For example, consistency in dye lots became irrelevant. Naps and patterns didn’t have to match. Worn or damaged tiles were inconspicuously replaced.
 
The final step is the one which made Interface famous: reinventing commerce itself, “ushering in the true service economy, where we sell not the product but the service that the product delivers.” So Interface leases its carpet, and replaces it when necessary, because “we’re in the business of making and selling beauty, not carpet.”
 
Interface hopes to achieve “Mission Zero” – no ecological footprint at all – by 2020. Meanwhile, business is booming.
 
“Costs are way down,” Anderson smiles. “The products are the best they’ve ever been. Our people are galvanized, and we have incredible good will in the marketplace. It’s a far better way of doing business.”
 

 

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