Ray Anderson, the charismatic founder and current chair of the board of Interface Inc., provides a poignant personal story of the new generation of corporations that have adopted ecological industrial principles. Interface, headquartered in Atlanta, is the world's largest manufacturer of modular and broadloom carpet with manufacturing locations on four continents and offices in more than 100 countries. In 1994 Ray had an experience he describes as a "spear in the chest" after reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce.10 This catalyst led Ray to examine his own conscience about manufacturing carpets which, after being bought, used and disposed of in landfills, would cause multi-generational environmental liabilities for which Interface and its customers took no responsibility. He embarked on journey that took Interface from agiant externalization-of-pollutants-enterprise to one operating on principles of sustainability. Instead of selling the physical carpet to customers, Ray's Interface dream-team and employees designed a new carpet that would be made of recycled carpet returned to Interface after its useful life. Moreover, no longer would you purchase carpet outright, but you would lease the service or utility of the carpet from Interface.
For the first twenty-one years of Interface's existence, I never gave one thought to what we took from or did to the Earth, except to be sure we obeyed all laws and regulations. That is, until August of 1994. At that time, our research division organized a task force with representatives from all our worldwide businesses to review Interface's environmental position and [I was] asked to give the group an environmental vision. Frankly, I didn't have a vision, except "comply, comply, comply." I had heard statesmen advocate "sustainable development," but I had no idea what it meant. I sweated for three weeks over what to say to that group. Then, through what seemed like pure serendipity, somebody sent me a book: Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. I read it, and it changed my life. It was an epiphany. I wasn't halfway through it before the vision I sought became clear, along with a powerful sense of urgency to do something. Hawken's message was a spear in my chest that remains to this day. In the speech, I borrowed Hawken's ideas shamelessly. And I agreed with his central thesis: while business is part of the problem, it can also be a part of the solution. Business is the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on Earth, and responsible for most of the damage. It must take the lead in directing the Earth away from collapse, and toward sustainability and restoration____ I believe we have come to the threshold of the next industrial revolution. At Interface, we seek to become the first sustainable corporation in the world, and, following that, the first restorative company. It means creating the technologies of the future-kinder, gentler technologies that emulate nature's systems. I believe that's where we will find the right model. Ultimately, I believe we must learn to depend solely on available income the way a forest does, not on our precious stores of natural capital. Linear practices must be replaced by cyclical ones. That's nature's way. In nature, there is no waste; one organism's waste is another's food Literally, our company will grow by cleaning up the world, not by polluting or degrading it. We'll be doing well by doing good. That's the vision. Is it a dream? Certainly, but it is a dream we share with our 5000 associates, our vendors, and our customers. Everyone will have to dream this dream to make it a reality, but until then, we are committed to leading the way.11
Interface sees sustainability as more than token environmentalism but rather living and working in ways that don't jeopardize the future of social, economic and natural resources. "In business, sustainability means managing human and natural capital with the same vigor we apply to the management of financial capital. It means widening the scope of our awareness so we can understand fully the 'true cost' of every choice we make."12
The story of Interface is described in Ray Anderson's book Mid-course Correction,13 and in The Natural Step for Business by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare.14 In 1996 Interface, following other corporations like IKEA of Sweden, was the first American company to adopt The Natural Step as a tool for guiding its journey towards sustainability.
According the The Natural Step framework, sustainability occurs when four system conditions are fulfilled.
In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
1. concentrations of substances extracted from Earth's crust;
2. concentrations of substances produced by society;
3. degradation by physical means and, in that society
4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.16
Guided by these four system conditions Inteface, like IKEA, completely re-thought their business and manufacturing processes including purchase of materials, manufacturing, transportation, construction of facilities, maintenance and waste management. Anderson notes "The Natural Step has become a compass, a reference point, something to recognize and be consistent with."17
I have come to personally know Ray Anderson as a person of great integrity and principle. He gives hope to a new generation of business leaders who will create companies like Ray's — operating with integrity, innovation and responsibility. While the journey towards genuine sustainability is a long one for Ray and Interface, the important point is that it has begun and evolves with a sustained commitment and transparent accountability for its failures and its victories.
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