RIP, sustainability pioneer Ray Anderson

Back in the mid-1990s, Interface founder Ray Anderson followed his heart and began a crusade to make his carpet company a better environmental citizen -- without compromising profitability.

Anyone who carries a corporate sustainability or environmental responsibility title on their business card owes a huge debt to the late Ray Anderson, the founder of carpet-maker Interface and a clear pioneer in balancing the complexities of the triple bottom line: people, planet and profits.

Anderson, who passed away this week at the age of 77 after a 20-month battle with cancer, probably didn't call himself a corporate sustainability expert. He preferred the term "radical industrialist," which shows up in the title of his two books. But his actions to create "Mission Zero" for Interface -- Interface's vision to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 -- were one clear catalyst for a movement that only continues to accelerate, despite the ridiculous twists and turns of the current economy.

So far, Interface has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent over that time, cut its fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent in favor of renewable energy alternatives, and cut its water usage by 82 percent. At the same time, the company has grown revenue by 63 percent -- while cutting $450 million in costs related to those sustainability efforts. Oh, by the way, it is also the world's largest maker of modular carpet.

Commenting on his chairman's passing this week, Interface President and CEO Dan Hendrix pledged to keep Anderson's dream alive:

"Ray was and continues to be our company's heart and soul. His iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy but our future. We will honor Ray by keeping his vision alive and the company on course."

Anderson's contributions are all the more extraordinary in an industry where petroleum has been at the heart of the manufacturing process for many years and where his actions were considered downright ornery at the time. He once commented:

"If we're successful, we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets and other petrochemically derived products and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we'll be doing well ... very well ... by doing good. That's the visions."

As the story goes, Anderson was so galvanized by a book that an employee gave him, "The Ecology of Commerce," that he made the decision to transform Interface into the sustainability corporate citizen that it still strives to be today. (I use the present tense because sustainability is an ongoing mission.) For me, what is notable is not only was this a leader who was willing to read a book suggested by an employee but that he had the strength of conviction to act on his vision -- and to galvanize the entire company and its supply chain to do the same.

In my mind, the innate success of Interface's mission is this: it was driven from within by a leader who was brave enough to stand up for his ideals and who was smart enough to rally every single employee to the cause. That, in my mind, is the very essence of a sustainable corporation.

Ray Anderson may be gone, but I hope to meet many more CEOs who perpetuate his legacy in the years to come. Rest in peace, Mr. Anderson, and thank you.

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