MNN reports that Ray Anderson (one time Interface CEO and author of the recent book "Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist") has passed away - A few notes on the singular legacy of Ray Anderson, sustainability pioneer.
As many of you in sustainability-obsessed circles have likely already heard, we lost a pioneer and a giant in the field the other day with the passing of Ray Anderson, CEO of the Georgia-based industrial carpet company Interface Inc., which Ray spent the last 15 years of his life turning into a test lab for sustainable industrial operations. Along the way, Ray basically invented corporate sustainability and provided the business world’s best and brightest example to point to when a green practice was labelled impossible, which they almost always are at first.
Profiles, obituaries and remembrances of Ray have already poured in from people who knew him far better than I did. (Here is MNN's own, as well as a heartfelt one from Joel Makower.) As a sort of addendum, I’ll tell you why I think Ray Anderson was one of the half-dozen most important figures in the whole sustainability movement, a prime candidate for a place on sustainability’s global Rushmore (Ray himself often called it “Mount Sustainability”).
I came to this sustainability beat by accident, though in retrospect it was inevitable. The questions I started asking as a journalist ten years ago had to end up being asked of people like Ray Anderson, because they were the only people who’d yet attempted to answer them in any serious way. I’d begun with the mindblowing scale of the climate change problem, which I came quickly to see as a crisis verging on existential for humanity and thus as the defining challenge of our time.
I started writing a little and reading a lot about the problem, and all I found were darker and darker shades of impending doom, piling up like apocalyptic thunderheads on the horizon. Was this truly – as another inspired Georgian once put it – the end of the world as we know it?
I began the work that was eventually published under the title The Geography of Hope around 2001 or so by turning the question on its head. If this nonrenewable fossil-fueled system was doomed, what system wasn’t? Were there concrete solutions out there? Who had them? What did they look like? I came upon the phrase sustainability again and again in those inquiries – at least as often as green or eco-friendly – and I soon came to understand that the sustainability-minded people seemed to be working much closer to the drive wheels of this enormous industrial contraption of ours. They weren’t as interested in saving the planet as they were in saving us, not so much protecting the environment from us as protecting us from ourselves.
I soon uncovered the evolving story of Interface and Ray Anderson’s pioneering commitment to turn his industrial carpet company – a business that turned toxic chemicals (PVC and nylon) into nonbiodegradable petrochemical waste (modular carpet tiles) as its core industrial function, if you were looking at it from a life-cycle point of view, as Ray had begun to – into the first sustainable multinational corporation on earth.
I finally made a pilgrimage to Georgia myself in 2005. Ray was unavailable, but I met with his R&D team at their facility in LaGrange. They’d just unveiled “Cool Blue,” a machine that could turn used carpeting into new industrial carpet backing. The backing on Interface’s carpets was to that point made exclusively of virgin PVC, the most problematic substance in its production chain, and Cool Blue eliminated it entirely while closing the life-cycle loop on old carpet tiles. ...
This is the essence of the jump from an unsustainable system to a sustainable one, and it only happens when there is a wholesale commitment to change. And this, more than anything, is what Ray Anderson brought to the corporate world: he demonstrated the viability of a wholesale commitment to sustainability. He made the business case for sustainability. He never wavered or backstepped or hedged. Under his leadership, Interface’s R&D engineers were empowered to tell the accountants that doing things sustainably was more important than making the numbers add up under an accounting system that had failed to include the costs of waste, toxicity, a world full of landfills full of old carpet tiles that slowly leached toxins into the soil over hundreds or thousands of years.
Ray Anderson launched this jump, so the story went, because he was starting to think about his legacy. In the early 1990s, he was coming up on retirement age, and he wondered what he’d be passing on to his children and grandchildren. Reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, Ray came to realize that by any measure other than the short-term yardstick of a quarterly earnings report, his legacy was toxic landfill. He made Interface’s sustainability commitment before anyone had a clue what the term meant to a multinational corporate industrial enterprise.
And now? His legacy is many things, but first and foremost it is one of a pioneer making that first jump off the cliff, risking the fall, hoping there would be firm ground on the far side. And then finding it. In a 2009 video progress report to his employees, Ray claimed Interface was 60 percent of the way up the steep face of Mount Sustainability after 60 percent of his original timeline had elapsed, and he was certain the company would reach the summit – Ray’s “Mission Zero” goal of zero toxins, zero waste, zero emissions – by 2020. ...
An activist or politician or even a green consultant like Paul Hawken can make this point a thousand times over, and the corporate world may simply shrug. All well and feel-good, they might say, but as the Once-ler told Dr. Seuss’s lecturing Lorax, “business is business, and business must grow.” But to hear this argument from a wildly successful CEO, on the far side of a jump many thought was folly? This is the kind of stuff that has brought sustainability to the mainstream of business conversations (if not quite yet of all business practices).
A couple of years ago, I saw Ray Anderson speak here in southern Alberta, at an invite-only corporate breakfast at the Chateau Lake Louise, an enchanted castle of a hotel tucked into one of the most awesome natural environments on the planet – the shore of an improbably blue lake at the base of a Rocky Mountain glacier.
Ray would eventually get to all the Mount Sustainability stuff, but first he invited everyone in the room to join him in closing their eyes. The assembled corporate VPs and senior managers – a good many oil-and-gas industry reps among them, this being Alberta – all did so. So did I.
This is what Ray told us to do. Close your eyes, he said, and imagine your place of greatest peace, the place you’d most like to be right now. Imagine calm, relaxation, contentment and joy. Now raise your hand if the place you’re imagining is outdoors, somewhere in nature. Nearly every hand in the room went up. Mine did. Ray’s did. He had everyone in the room right where he wanted them – their priorities recalibrated from profit and loss to balance and stewardship and a climb up Mount Sustainability.
Andrew Revkin also has an obituary for Ray at the NYT, quoting Paul Hawken's eulogy at Anderson's funeral service - Farewell to a ‘Recovering Plunderer’.
We, who were so fortunate to know Ray Anderson, were in awe. He was many people, a father, executive, colleague, brother, speaker, writer, leader, pioneer, but I am not sure any of us quite figured him out. On the outside, Ray was deceptively traditional, very quiet sometimes, an everyman, all-American, down-home. He was so normal that he could say just about anything and get away with it because people didn’t quite believe what they heard. He could walk into an audience and leave listeners transfixed by a tenderness and introspection they never expected or met.
Business audiences in particular had no defenses because they had no framework for Ray. Was he really a businessman? Yes. Was he a conservative southern gentleman with that very refined Georgia drawl. Yes. Was he successful? For sure. Well, then where did these radical statements come from? Ironically, because people could not connect the dots, he was extraordinarily credible. He was also courageous. He stood up again and again in front of big audiences and told them that pretty much everything they knew, learned, and were doing was destroying the earth. He meant every word he spoke and those words landed deeply in the hearts and minds of the hundreds of thousands of people he addressed. There was no one remotely like him, nor will there ever be.
People called Ray a dreamer. To be sure, he was, but he was also an engineer. He had definitely seen the mountain, but he also dreamed in balance sheets, thermodynamics, and resource flow theory. He dreamed a world yet to come because dreams of a livable future are not coming from our politicians, bankers, and the media. For Ray, reimagining the world was a responsibility, something owed to our children’s children, a gift to a future that is begging for selflessness and vision.
Proverbs reminds us that though all good people die, goodness does not perish. The metaphorical spear in his chest was not an injury but an awakening that led Ray to give talks all over the world and in so doing he became a great teacher. He used business as a means to educate and transform, but his life was not about money or carpets. Ray’s life was about the sacred. His covenant was with God; the marketplace is where he labored. He gently laid down that spear this Monday morning but his teachings are a lineage that will live for centuries to come.
To we who remain, Ray’s passing is startling, a summons, maybe even a provocation. Before we die, may we know that to be alive is astounding, inconceivably precious, a privilege beyond reckoning. When we know and cherish this existence, the rest of our life is a shimmering field of light because we have come to recognize one unalterable truth—that we are one with all living entities and beings, and that we are never alone. The consciousness of interdependence and connectedness, and its attendant responsibility to do no harm, was Ray’s epiphany. Seventeen years ago he had a realization. At that time Ray came home. He rediscovered a sacred earth with all its complexity, beauty and mystery, free from the constraints of this or that ideology, free from narrow minded thinking, and he was freed to reimagine the relationship between humanity and nature with Interface as the model. No longer were there human systems and ecosystems.
They were one system and he understood that the laws of physics and biology prevailed. He believed in Emerson’s words, that there is an innate morality in the laws of nature: I have confidence in laws of morals as of botany. I have planted maize in my field every June for seventeen years and I never knew it to come up strychnine. My parsley, beet, turnip…,acorn, are as sure. I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice injustice. Ultimately, Ray’s work was not about making a sustainable business, it was about justice, ethics, and honoring creation. Zero waste was the path to 100% respect for living beings.
Like Ray, when we become literate in the sweet treasures of creation, there arises a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for one’s very existence and the swirl of living beings around us. Do you remember the videos of the Chilean miners coming out of the elevator shaft one-by-one from the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile last October? The miners arose from a half a mile below the earth after being trapped for 69 days, and when they emerged they danced, they sang, they kissed the earth, they kissed their wives, kissed their mistresses—sometimes both—and they were ecstatic. They knew what they had nearly lost: the sun and the moon and the stars, cool air made sweet by plants and trees, the succulent foods that come from the soil, the sound of a child’s voice; they were rapturous and joyful and deeply grateful. Although it was a real event, the San Jose miners are metaphors for being reborn in this life to what we overlook and take for granted. Ray woke up and saw what we will lose unless we change.
We don’t know exactly what happened to Ray in 1994. Yes, he read a book. But something remarkable was already there within his being that came to life. What we do know is that from that point seventeen years ago, Ray could see. He saw benevolence and beauty, the tightly knit longleaf pine forests, the undulant riverine corridors of the Chattahoochee, the tantalizing pure light of life reflected on bracts and fronds, the drifting silvery spider silk that takes tiny passengers to new forests. Once your eyes open to the magnificence of creation you cannot unsee. Ray never looked back. He did not ponder long. He went to work. He was not satisfied by being able to see, he was destined to do one thing only, and that is serve life itself, for what else is there to do once you see how phenomenally we are stitched together by the living world? He did not see nature as an abstraction to be worshiped but as the matrix of reformation, the source of goodness, the architecture of our spirit, the template of a future delineated by people who know that business has no purpose lest it serve and honor all of life, that our lives rely upon the kindness of strangers and the damp forest floor and spirited grasses and on you, his family, friends and fiercest admirers who loved this man. He loved us all. His life is a testament to that love. He passed on Monday morning but it is up to us as to whether he will die. Actually, that is not even a question. He will live. His physical presence has vanished into a mystery we will all follow but never fully understand. His dream, his yearning for commerce that regenerates life and does no harm, his intention to re-conceive what it means to be a manufacturer, to bring industry and biology together into one entity, burned in him, a flame that never seared or ceased, and it will live on in his company and thousands more. Ray has now traveled to a new forest. We who gather know that the greatest man of industrial ecology, the businessman who defined and showed us how commerce will be for centuries to come if we are to continue our life here on earth, was our friend, patron, and teacher, and we are the most blessed people in the world for having known him.