The TH Interview: Ray Anderson—The Man with a Spear in his Chest (Part One)

TreeHugger Radio Ray Anderson photo

Ray Anderson started his company, Interface, back in the 1970s to make carpet. Like any business man, he wanted to shake up the market and make a healthy profit, which he's done, and Interface now has 17 manufacturing locations on four continents. But this is not business as usual. Not anymore. Since having a sustainability epiphany, as he calls it, Ray has starting steering Interface toward one hell of a goal: zero negative effects on the planetary ecosystem by the year 2020, a goal he admits no corporation has yet reached. TreeHugger has long found inspiration in Interface's elegant design solutions—products like modular carpet and FLOR—and in Anderson's own sagely words. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download. For Part Two of this interview, click here.

Special thanks go to CraigMichaels, the organizer of the Sustainable Operations Summit, for arranging this interview.

(Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: Can you give us your story in a nutshell?

Ray Anderson: Sure. In 1973, 35 years ago, I founded Interface with just an idea to produce carpet tiles in America for the emerging office of the future. We survived and we prospered beyond anybody's imagination, really. In 1994, in our twenty-second year, we began to hear a question from our customers: What's your company doing for the environment? And we had no good answers.

So I personally made it my business to seek out answers. And in that searching, Paul Hawken's book found me, "The Ecology of Commerce." And of course I read it, and it was a life changing experience for me. As I've described many times, it was a spear in the chest, an epiphanal experience, an eye-opening, life changing experience. So we took Hawken's challenge and we issued that challenge to an entire company: to become the world's first truly sustainable industrial enterprise, meaning zero footprint, taking nothing from the Earth that's not naturally and rapidly renewable, doing no harm to the biosphere. For a petrol-intensive company, that's a tall order.

We're well on our way. We're halfway to the top of that mountain, Mt. Sustainability. The point at the top signifies zero footprint that we aspire to. And there are different faces of the mountain, and we're at different places on different faces. But we're moving toward the top. And one critically important face in particular in this day and time, is the face of emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions in our company are down 82 percent in absolute tonnage, even as the business has grown by two-thirds, which translates into an intensity reduction of 93 percent. So it's setting a pretty tough standard, but other companies have got to do it, too. If we can do it, they can.

TH: What products are doing the best right now? And how do they fit into that matrix, that path towards zero?

Ray Anderson photo

RA: Well, it's interesting. We don't believe anybody (ourselves included) can make a green product in a brown company. So the challenge is to green the whole company. And when you do that, everything you make then becomes green. Now there are degrees of greenness. And every product won't be the same. But they'll all be coming out of that same basic reduction in footprint. So what products that are doing well? Well, how about Cool Carpet? Climate neutral carpet is doing extremely well.

TH: Tell me a little more about what that is.

RA: That means that with the greenhouse gas reductions that we've made and the offsets that we've created, we're producing products today that are climate neutral from the wellhead of the supplier's oil well clear through to the reclamation of our product at the end of its useful life. So the entire lifecycle, all the greenhouse gases, are either eliminated or offset to create a climate neutral product. And we call it Cool Carpet—that's what marketing has dubbed it.

Of course that's doing well. And the product that's going to the home now is attracting a lot of interest, too. Particularly from the LOHAS community. The FLOR product (we misspelled floor to make it sticky) is doing really well. And most of the business incidentally is coming through the web-based marketing, point-and-click and have it delivered to your front doorstep tomorrow—well, not tomorrow, but day after tomorrow, or this week anyway. That's doing well. And it's happening all around the world, too.

TH: A lot of what you do, if I'm correct, is on a commercial basis. So you have large institutions as customers.

RA: Fully 90% of my business is commercial and institutional.

TH: Are you hoping to grow the consumer side?

RA: We're new on the consumer side of it. We're very new and the fact that it's already 10 percent is significant enough because we've only been at it three or four years now. So there's been a really quick acceptance and we expect that to continue to expand. And we want to cultivate the green marketplace, too because we have a real place there for people who want to reduce their own footprint and see themselves as part of the supply chain. Or see the supply chain as themselves. You know, each of us is his supply chain. We are the sum total of everything that we consume. Our footprint is everybody else's footprint if they're in our supply chain.

TH: Paul Hawken, who you mentioned a moment ago, really taught the world how to do business the way nature does business. How's Interface doing business like nature?

RA: Well, we're climbing the mountain. You can picture in your mind a mountain. The point, the top, symbolizes zero footprint. And we studied that mountain very, very carefully. And we've finally determined there's at least seven faces of that mountain. And when you define those seven faces of the mountain, we found ourselves defining a process for climbing the mountain that's very much like nature.

Nature runs on sunlight. Okay, we want to run our factories on sunlight. But we first have to reduce energy to that reducible minimum if we can even hope to afford renewable energy. Nature is cyclical and nature does not waste. One organism's waste is another's food. So we are getting our products back at the end of their useful life and converting them, reincarnating them life after life.

We're closing the loop nature's way. We're recycling other people's products, too, into our own products. So that's emulating nature again. And nature's beautiful, too. And our designers are not sacrificing anything in beauty to achieve the reduced footprint. See, designing for sustainability is a very interesting lens in which to approach the design process. And there is no need to compromise beauty. There's no need to compromise performance. There's no need to compromise either aesthetics or functionality for the sake of sustainability.

In fact, we have pledged to our customer never to knowingly force an inferior product on them in the name of sustainability. Now, how is that like nature? I have a little trouble making that connection but nevertheless it's our commitment not to be guilty of greenwashing. Nature is not guilty of greenwashing. I guess there's the connection.

TH: Who do you admire most?

RA: Well, Hawken is right near the top of the list. Yeah, I admire Amory, too, Amory Lovins. He's so smart he's so smart. I admire Lee Scott at Wal-Mart for being so bold as to challenge that entire company—the biggest company on earth in terms of revenue, with 1,800,000 employees and locations around the world—to move up that same mountain in their own way. And to challenge the supply chain, which is 60,000 companies, to make it all possible, because Wal-Mart knows that most of their footprint is actually in the supply chain. And for them to have a real effect, they have to bring the whole supply chain along with them. But each one of those 60,000 suppliers has got to do their part in this. So I admire that.

I admire some of the people who have been at this the longest and have gotten very little recognition for it. Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia and the people at Patagonia who have supported him in his own quest for a reduced footprint, to do the right thing. I admire Gary Hirshberg at the Stonyfield Farms. He's been in it a long, long time. I admire so many people in the NGO world who have been out there, Jeremiahs in the wilderness, telling us it's coming, basically ignored by the general population.

Also the people at World Resources Institute, Jonathan Lash; Fred Krupp at Environmental Defense; John Adams at NRDC. David Brower was my hero before he died. And of course he founded the Earth Island Institute and also saved the Grand Canyon from being dammed. Did you know that Congress was actually ready to dam the Grand Canyon?

And David Brower, when he was at the Sierra Club, got in there and changed Congress's mind. It cost Sierra Club their tax-exempt status (I think I'm right about that). I know David used to say that he came into Sierra Club and went out the same way: "fired with enthusiasm."

I admired Dana Meadows, too, before she died. She was so smart. We invited her to join our Eco Dream Team and she was delighted. (This was Paul Hawken, John Picard, Bill McDonough, and those guys in the early days.) "So Dana," we said," we've got a meeting coming up in Atlanta." And she said, "oh, I'm so sorry I can't come." "Well, why not?" "Well, I've got this carbon budget. And I'm over my carbon budget." And I said, "Well, we'll plant trees." "Oh, that's sweet. But no, I won't come." So she stuck to her principles.

TH: Some of the people you just mentioned are people we have been lucky enough to speak to on TreeHugger Radio: Fred Krupp, Gary Hirshberg, Paul Hawken, and Yvon Chouinard. And when I spoke to Yvon he said something really fascinating about the way that Patagonia's products behave when the economy takes a downturn. And we're looking into an economic downturn right now. What do you think is going to happen to green companies if the economy continues to slump?

RA: I don't know, to be truthful about it. We'd been amazed at how well our business has held up even through the downturn that we've already experienced. It hasn't hit the commercial side as hard as it has hit the residential side of the industry. But we've been amazed at how our business has held up.

But I don't know whether there is something that will come into play that none of us have thought about. What did Yvon have to say about it?

TH: He said when the economy looks grim, people have less money to spend, his company does better. And he believes it's because what he sells is a product that, for a consumer, is an investment in utility, functionality, and sustainability. And the apparel companies that do poorly are the ones that focus primarily on image and fashion on the surface level. And that is the first thing to be cut from people's budgets when their money gets tighter.

Is there anything that really bugs you, gets on your nerves in the world of sustainable business?

RA: Oh good Lord, the greenwashing that goes on.

TH: Can you give an example of something that gets you riled up?

RA: I have lots of competitors. It's not right for me to talk about my competitors.

TH: Fair enough.

RA: Everybody's trying to look green, like the mine-is-greener-than-yours syndrome. And you just have to smile and shake your head. People have so far to go and don't have a clue. This is not easy stuff. This is not the program of the week, the program of the month, or the program of the year. It's the program of a lifetime.

The TH Interview: Ray Anderson—The Man with a Spear in his Chest (Part One)
Ray Anderson started his company, Interface, back in the 1970s to make carpet. Like any business man, he wanted to shake up the market and make a healthy profit, which he's done, and Interface now has 17 manufacturing locations on four continents.

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