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It’s Easy Being Green: Mission Zero

Ray Anderson took Interface from a company with no environmental vision to a leader in sustainable business.

Fourteen years ago, Ray Anderson was running Interface, a billion-dollar-a-year carpet manufacturing company he’d founded in 1973. The highly successful company followed all laws and regulations, but he was being pressured from his customers, who wanted to know what Interface was doing for the environment. Anderson put together a task force to formulate the company’s environmental stance and respond to his customers’ concerns. The task force asked Anderson to deliver a “kickoff” speech with his environmental vision for the company, and he found he didn’t have a clue what to say.

“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,” Anderson says on Interface’s website.

Then, incredibly, two books landed on Anderson’s desk that would change his life: The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken and Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. “It was an epiphany,” says Anderson. “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.”

The “spear in the chest” gave Anderson the inspiration he needed to deliver the speech—and much more. Anderson’s vision is to transform his company into a restorative enterprise: a company that returns more than it takes from nature. His goal is to meet “Mission Zero” by 2020, with the company causing no harm to the environment. Anderson devised a strategy for Mission Zero that includes increasing the use of recyclable materials and renewable energy, redesigning processes and products, using sustainable technologies, and adopting best practices to share with other businesses.

Largely a petroleum-based business, Interface’s factories were producing hundreds of gallons of highly toxic wastewater every year, along with 900 different pollutants and six tons of carpet trimmings to the landfill every day. Since 1995, the company has reduced its contributions to landfills by 63 percent and has saved $300 million in avoided costs in the process. The company now consumes 50 percent less water than before, and five of its seven manufacturing facilities use 100 percent renewable energy. Computer controls in factories have reduced carbon emissions by 56 percent, and the company has planted 52,000 trees to offset the trucks used for delivery. With all of these changes, the company is nearly 50 percent toward the goal of Mission Zero.

Anderson applied his new business philosophy to his personal life as well. He turned in his luxury car for a Prius and built an off-the-grid home. He wrote a book chronicling his journey, Mid-Course Correction, and appeared in the 2004 Canadian documentary, "The Corporation" and Leonardo DiCaprio’s "The 11th Hour." He’s received several awards, including being named one of TIME magazine’s Heroes of the Environment last year. A regular speaker on sustainable business practices, he funded the Alliance to Save Energy, helping children design energy-saving campaigns for their schools.

He sees society on the verge of another industrial revolution, and his business as an example of the way businesses will need to function in the future. “We’ll be doing well by doing good,” he says. “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."

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