RIP Ray Anderson, ‘Zeronaut’

I was enormously saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, a self-described ‘Radical Industrialist’ and long-time champion of sustainability.  He had told me how seriously ill he was when I last spoke to him, a couple of months back, while profiling him as one of the prototypical ‘Zeronauts’ in the book I’m currently working on, The Zeronauts, for publication early in 2012.

When it comes to sustained leadership in the business of zero, one company comes to mind ahead of all others: Interface.  “What can be a bigger challenge than zero?”, asks Ramon Arratia, Sustainability Director at InterfaceFlor.  And he notes that in its Mission Zero Milestones report, the company is focusing on zero footprint goals in such areas as waste, energy use and emissions.

“When we set the goal to eliminate all of our negative impacts on the environment, we knew it was aspirational,” Arratia explains.  “Our people have embraced this vision, and we’ve achieved progress beyond our imagined success.  However, we do not have all the answers—some solutions are still being imagined, and others are complicated to implement or financially arduous.”

The extent to which Interface’s people have embraced the challenge is the ultimate tribute to the company’s founder, Ray Anderson.  To see how things were going with Interface’s Mission Zero, I asked Ray how he saw the competitive landscape.  “Interface was such an early mover,” he explained, “stealing an early march on our competition in terms of sustainability, that no-one has yet caught up.”  Not that there aren’t other companies trying to stake a claim.  “Almost every competitor in the Americas and Europe has a green effort,” he acknowledged, “with varying degrees of credibility and effectiveness.”

But he didn’t rate the majority of those claims highly.  “Most have taken a knee-jerk, rifle-shot approach,” he suggested. “For example, Shaw Industries, our largest competitor, created a carpet tile backing out of polyolefin.  It is promoted as a non-PVC backing, but has very poor structural characteristics, and requires a full spread of glue for installation.  The material is all virgin and petro-derived, and when we compare it with our recycled PVC backing on a life cycle basis, the Shaw product compared very poorly.

“Another competitor, Mohawk, took a similar approach to carpet tile backing,” he continued.  “The product failed to the tune of more than $100 million in replacement costs.  They are still digging out of that mess.  There are numerous smaller players—and each one is doing something, generally of a defensive nature, then shouting, ‘Mine is greener than yours!’”

Is it any wonder that many business customers and end consumers are a little confused?  So I asked about the internal impact of the sustainability agenda—and specifically of Mission Zero.  “’Zero footprint’, expressed as reaching the top of  ‘Mount Sustainability’, has been the most powerfully motivating initiative I have ever seen in 55 years of business,” Ray replied, “providing a shared higher purpose for 4,000 people.  For this to take hold throughout the business world, a change in the business paradigm is needed.”

As he recalled in his extraordinary book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, his own paradigm shift came when he was being asked to provide his company with an environmental vision—and the best that he could come up with was that they should “comply with all the many rules and regulations that government agencies seemed to love to send our way.”

Then, “as if by pure serendipity,” Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce landed on Ray’s desk—and triggered an intense personal crisis.  Suddenly realizing that mankind is headed into ecological overshoot, he often described the moment he got the message as “an epiphany, a rude awakening, an eye-opening experience, and the point of the story felt just like the point of a spear driven straight into my heart.”

And it is significant that Ray spoke of the heart.  He wasn’t solely driven by the business case—he saw sustainability as a matter of morality, too.  He referred to himself as a “recovering plunderer,” because he believed that any company that takes more from the planet than it gives back is involved in plunder.  As he told a TED conference in 2009, “Theft is a crime.  And the theft of our children’s future [will] someday be considered a crime.”

As to the future, he forecast that “a new generation of CEOs will emerge. There could be astounding progress by 2040.”  And the impact of such pioneers goes wider.  “Our biggest successes,” he concluded, “at least in terms of exerting influence, have been outside the carpet industry.  Wal-Mart sent two teams to visit us in LaGrange (our US carpet tile operation) and went away convinced that their supply chain could do it, too.  Those teams were led by Mike Duke and Doug McMillan. Wal-Mart’s top two executives today.  Heaven only knows how many others we have influenced similarly.  Lorraine Bolsinger, GE’s first head of Ecomagination, once said to me, ‘You showed us how to do it.’”

And what about that push to zero?  How confident was Ray of ultimate success?  “The technologies are in hand to get us about 97 percent of the way there,” he insisted.  “The main external factor that needs to change is the price of oil.  Internally, we need persistence and effective execution, plus a little more invention.”

The task will be that much harder without him, but his extraordinary vision and commitment will live on in the rest of us.  A case, in an Intel Inside world, of Anderson Inside.

John Elkington is a founding partner & executive chairman of Volans and also co-founder of SustainAbility. This article has been republished with permission from Volans.

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