Ray Anderson, one of America’s most prominent green entrepreneurs, passed away from cancer on Monday at the age of 77. As the founder and CEO of Interface, Inc., now the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpets, Anderson left behind a legacy of unprecedented vision and success in his advocacy for and implementation of sustainable business practices.
For Anderson, sustainable business meant far more than merely adhering to environmental standards or “going green” as a measure of assurance to customers and investors. He founded Interface in 1973 with the goal of introducing a European style of carpet tiles to the American market. Anderson’s modular carpets were compartmental and easily replaced, in contrast to regular carpets, whose disposal generated a significant amount of waste. But Interface’s innovative approach remained an ecological inconvenience, as manufacturing carpets in any format still involved the inevitable usage of fossil fuels.
In 1994 Anderson embarked on a venture that was all but unprecedented in the corporate sector at the time: transforming Interface into a truly sustainable business entity. He later attributed the inspiration for his decision to Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, which argued that the expansion of business could either lead to ecological destruction or bring about potent, restorative change. According to Anderson, the book’s dialectical approach to solving the rift between commerce and environment hit him like “a spear in the chest.”
Anderson took on the challenge of transforming a business into an inherently sustainable entity, while simultaneously maintaining the spirit of expansion and free enterprise. Calling his project “Mission Zero,” he set ambitious goals for Interface: zero waste, zero impact, and zero environmental footprint by the year 2020. For Interface, Anderson explained, the goal was to "eventually [operate] our petroleum-intensive company in such a way as to take from the earth only what can be renewed by the earth naturally and rapidly, not another fresh drop of oil, and to do no harm to the biosphere. Take nothing. Do no harm."
After transferring the reins to current Interface CEO Dan Hendrix in 2001, Anderson spent the next 10 years as nonexecutive chairman. In the wake of Anderson’s 1994 epiphany, Interface has since gone on to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 82 percent, fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent, waste by 66 percent, and water usage by 75 percent—all while producing new materials, manufacturing processes, doubled earnings, and raised profit margins. Anderson proudly presented these numbers in his 2009 book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, a work whose title captures only a part of the progressive essence that made Anderson such a singular figure in the corporate landscape.
For Anderson the business mogul, sustainability was about more than “going green”; it meant engendering a purpose, putting ideas into action, and inspiring later generations to continue in his footsteps. For Anderson the conscientious entrepreneur, sustainability meant creating a business that would indubitably last in the long run: investing in and providing for the people of the earth.