Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Leadership of Ray Anderson

"Who's Ray Anderson?" I hear you ask.

Ah. Ray Anderson caught my attention in a film by Canadians Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan, called 'the Corporation', where Ray talked about corporate social responsibility, and how most companies didn't have a social conscience. I next saw Ray in a Sundance series called 'Big Ideas for a Small Planet', where he had several spots talking about what his company, Interface, was doing to green their business.

Sadly, Ray died on the 8th of August this year. The legacy he leaves is that any industrial plunderer can turn their business into a green-machine and make plenty of profit doing business the sustainable way - knowing that the business will then truly be there to sustain their children's children, as will the planet, and company profitability.

Ray Anderson was a self-styled “radical industrialist”. However, the titles bestowed upon him by big name US organisations include 'America’s greenest CEO', 'Entrepreneur of the Year', a member of the ‘100 Best Corporate Citizens' list and 'Hero of the Environment' - from Time, Forbes, Corporate Responsibility magazine, Ernst & Young, US News & World Report. Ray was co-chair of President Clinton's Sustainable Development Council in 1997 and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan in 2008. Fairly heady stuff for a softly spoken man from La Grange, Georgia.However, Ray became a keynote speaker, high-end committee member and author, because he developed a vision. It was a pretty powerful vision. But first let me tell you the story of how he came to his vision.

Ray graduated from Uni as an engineer in Georgia, and founded Interface Inc, a carpet manufacturing firm. The factory was run conventionally for eighteen years, until his managers started fielding questions from customers, asking what Interface was doing about sustainability. Ray suggested the team got together and talked about it. His team members asked him to give a kick-off address. Ray didn't feel to comfortable about it, as he knew squat about sustainability - but hey, that's the boss' job, so he agreed.

At the same time, Ray was given a book by Paul Hawken called “The Ecology of Commerce”. Ray read it, and was pole-axed. He was utterly appalled to realise that he was pillaging the environment, that the legacy he was creating for his children was death - the death of the environment, whole species and even the death of birth itself. He and his company were playing a not-inconsiderable role in killing the planet.Ray's business ethos changed pretty much overnight. His kick-off speech to his team was a call to action. Together the Interface team looked at everything that the business did, and tried to find better ways, processes, materials, chemicals, methods, systems and relationships. Suppliers were told at a supplier summit called by Interface, that either you work with us, doing business our way, or we will no longer do business with you.

They worked on totally greening their supply chain, from using corn as a raw material for carpet, to introducing 'cradle to cradle' manufacturing processes (that means you lease your Interface carpet, Interface installs it, cleans it, takes it out when worn, replaces it, and pulls it up for recycling at their closest plant when your building is demolished). They established a consulting company, InterfaceRaise, to help other companies do what they have done. Ray wrote two books about his experiences. He has talked to everyone who would listen, to try to change our approach to consumerism and waste.

It has taken 17 years of total commitment from everyone involved in the process, but Interface has increased sales by 66%, doubled earnings, and raised profit margins by 28%; growing sustainably to operate on four continents, in 110 countries. They have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 82%, fossil fuel consumption by 60%, waste by 66% and water use by 75%. All their carpet is carbon neutral. Interface has made all the big gains, but are still committed to picking off the smaller 'high' spots as they can. They are 60% of the way to meeting Ray's vision.

Which brings us neatly back to Ray's vision.

Ray said “If we're successful, we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets and other petrochemically-derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well…very well…by doing good. That’s the vision”.And a great legacy to all of us: that true sustainability is achievable; and that one person can make a difference.


  • Achbar, Mark, Abbott, Jennifer & Bakan, Joel (2003). The Corporation: Canada: Madman CinemaAnderson, Ray (2009). Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose - Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. USA: St Martin's Press.
  • Sundance Channel (2007). Big Ideas for a Small Planet (13 episode TV Series). USA: Author
  • And a lot of others that I won't bore you with unless you ask me :-) 


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