Known in environmental circles as the most
advanced and progressive CEO in the world, Ray was named co-chairman of
the President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1997. He is the
founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., the world's largest carpet
manufacturer of commercial carpet. Interface no longer uses a drop of
petroleum in the fabrication of its products and is rapidly approaching
its goal of having zero environmental impact on the planet. Anderson
credits this shift with a range of benefits: the very survival of his
company, higher profitability, and a deeper sense of purpose and
connection by its employees. Here is an edited version of his address at
the World Business Academy conference “Be The Change” in London recently:
You should maybe understand that I speak as an
industrialist; some would say as a radical industrialist, but one as
competitive as anyone you know and as profit-minded as anyone you know….
But how would you have reacted if you had begun
to hear from your sales force a strange new question from your customers
to whom you had learned to listen very, very carefully 20 years before:
“What is your company doing for the environment?" How would you have
responded if you had begun to hear about requests-for-bid quotations that
ask your company to state its environmental policies when it competed for
What would you have said if a report had come
to you through one of your top sales managers that a certain environmental
consultant to a certain major customer had said, "Interface just doesn't
get it." And that piece of business was slipping away.
You know what I said? "Interface doesn't get
what?"--rather confirming the consultant's comment. Two of my managers
approached me with the assertion that our sales force was begging for
answers. What are we doing for the environment? What are our environmental
policies? And they suggested convening a new taskforce from our businesses
from around the world to come together to assess our company's
environmental practices, to begin to frame some answers for those
customers. "Sounds good to me," I say. "Go for it." Then the showstopper.
They say, "We want you to address this new taskforce. Give it a kick-off
speech and launch it with your environmental vision!"
"What...? What environmental vision?" In my
whole life I have never given one thought to what my company or I are
taking from the earth, or doing to the earth. I do not have an
environmental vision. I do not want to make that speech.
I cannot get beyond, "We obey the law… comply."
I drag my feet. They stay on my case and finally I relent and agree to
speak. The date is set. August 31, 1994. Come the middle of August I have
not a clue as what to say, but I know "comply" is not a vision.
I am sweating. It is a propitious moment. And
at that very moment a book lands on my desk. It has come by a circuitous
route. A young woman out of Seattle, Washington, working for the state of
Washington's Environmental Protection Department, hears a guy speak…likes
what he has to say… buys his book. After reading it she sends it to her
mother, a sales manager for a carpet tile company who has had to endure
and relay the message "Interface just doesn't get it" and also has had to
choke on her CEO's response, "Interface doesn't get what?" The book is
about "what." She sends it to her CEO, me, and the book lands on my desk.
There is that propitious moment. It is entitled
The Ecology of Commerce.
Its author is Paul Hawken. I've never heard of
him. It is pure serendipity. Without a clue as to what is in it, I start
to thumb it. On page 19 I come to an arresting chapter head, "The Death of
Birth." I begin to read. On page 25 I find the full meaning of the chapter
heading, and I counted four terms I have never before heard mentioned
together in one paragraph: carrying capacity, overshoot, collapse, and
extinction. That is, the death of birth. Species disappearing, never ever
to be born again….
Reading this for the first time nearly 11 years
ago, I knew, I knew it was a metaphor for the earth and humankind. It was
an epiphanal moment, a spear in the chest. I read on and I was dumbfounded
by how much I did not know about the environment and about the impacts of
the industrial system on the environment…the industrial system of which my
successful company and I were an integral part. A new definition of
"success" began to creep into my consciousness, and the latent sense of
legacy asserted itself. I was a plunderer of the earth, and that is not
the legacy one wants to leave behind.
Hawken made the central point of his book in
three parts: one, the living systems, the life support systems of earth,
that together make up the biosphere are in decline. We are degrading the
biosphere. Unchecked it will continue to decline and we will lose the
biosphere that contains and supports all of life. Secondly, the biggest
culprit in this decline is the industrial system. The linear take – make –
waste industrial system is driven by fossil-fuel-derived energy, wasteful
and abusive. And three: the only institution on earth that is large
enough, powerful enough, wealthy enough, pervasive enough, and influential
to lead humankind out of the mess it's making for itself is the same
institution that is doing the most damage -- the institution of business
and industry, my institution.
I took that message to heart. I made that
speech, drawing shamelessly on Hawken's material. I challenged that tiny
gathering of only about 16 or 17 to lead our company to sustainability,
which we defined as eventually operating our petrol –intensive company,
that is, for energy and materials, in such a way as to eventually take
nothing from the earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable.
Not another fresh drop of oil and to do no harm
to the biosphere. I just stunned that little group of people and shocked
myself with a challenge, and I found for myself a whole new purpose in
life in my 61st year. For nearly 11 years now we have been on this
mission. We call it "Climbing Mt. Sustainability," a mountain higher than
Everest, and to meet at the point at the top that symbolizes zero
footprint, zero environmental impact, sustainable, taking nothing, doing
no harm. I told that story in far greater detail in the book published in
1998 entitled Mid-Course Correction.
Its title is intended to represent my own personal mid-course correction,
my company's, and the one that I would wish for all of humankind, and
especially its industrial system. And the amazing thing is, it has been
incredibly good for business.
What started out as the right thing to do very
quickly became clearly the smart thing as well. We are leaner. Our costs
are down, not up. Cost savings from eliminating waste along the first face
of the mountain represent 28% of our operating income over the last 10
years. Our products are better than they have ever been because
sustainability has proven to be an unimagined source of inspiration and
Our people are galvanized around a higher
purpose. Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, had it right in his hierarchy
of human needs: self-actualization is at the top and that translates into
higher purpose (and by the way I would add parenthetically there is no
more strategic issue for a company or any other organization than its
ultimate purpose). And for those who think that business exists to make a
profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist, and
surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that.
To round out the business case, the goodwill of
the marketplace has been nothing less than astounding. No amount of
advertising could have generated as much, or contributed as much, to the
top line, to winning business. There is a better way to bigger profits. In
the last five years those four advantages - costs, products, people, and
goodwill - have been the very salvation of Interface during a recession
that saw our primary marketplace shrink by nearly 40% from peak to trough.
Nearly 40 percent! The entire marketplace!
As a heavily leveraged company with over $400
million in debt we might not have made it without this initiative. This
revised definition of success, the new paradigm, has a name and we learned
this name well: Doing well by doing good.
Well, folks, everyday of my life tomorrow's
child has spoken to me, getting me up, getting me going with a very simple
but profound message which I would presume to share with you also. That is
that we are each and everyone part of the web of life, a continuum of
humanity for sure, yes, but also in the larger sense, the web of life
itself. And we have a choice to make during our brief visit to this
beautiful planet. To hurt it or to help it. And for every human being it's
her or his individual choice. It's your choice.
Copyright © 2005, World
Featured in Soul Light #2