Ray Anderson: A Revealing Chat with a Radical Industrialist

Ray Anderson‘s epiphany about his own role in environmental destruction after reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce has taken on mythic status in the fifteen years since. The “spear in the chest moment” he experienced transformed Anderson into a leader in sustainable thought and practice within American industry, and his company, Interface, Inc. (which manufacture modular floor covering primarily for business and institutional customers) is now recognized as a model of transformation. Named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time magazine in 2007, Anderson is constantly sought out for speeches, interviews, and even documentary film appearances (THE CORPORATION, and the new SO RIGHT SO SMART)

In September, Anderson (with Robin White) published his second book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Planet – Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. This wide-ranging work not only tells Interface’s story in detail, but also provides a blueprint for how a large, well-established company can literally reinvent itself as both a profitable enterprise and a business that learns to operate in harmony with natural systems.

The word “confessions” in the title is very appropriate: Anderson is very frank about Interface’s successes and setbacks in its climb up “Mt. Sustainability” (a phrase he coined). He also discusses the efforts of other companies, and makes bold, and hopeful, cases for environmental and social responsibility as pillars of successful business strategy in the 21st century. The book is an engaging and thoughtful read for business people, environmental activists, and consumers concerned about the impact of industry on the planet’s future.

I spoke with Anderson on the phone on Wednesday, November 4, 2009.

So much of Interface’s success in “climbing Mt. Sustainability” seems based in really common-sense approaches to design, manufacturing, and distribution. We Americans generally regard ourselves as practical, efficient, etc., yet we encounter such strong resistance on numerous fronts to these kinds of changes… they really seem to scare some people. In your experience, what’s the best way to approach this resistance to new ideas?

It requires a considerable amount of patience, and also persistence. I know in bringing our people along, it was one mind at a time. It’s not something you could dictate, and everyone accepted immediately. Or, it’s not something you can dictate and everybody ever accepted, for that matter. It’s one mind at a time.

I know in our instance as a for-profit business, one of the most important things that helped bring our people along was the response of the marketplace. When our customers began to embrace our company for what we were trying to do, it had a huge effect on our people: they saw the positive response, and saw the common-sense wisdom of what we were doing.

So, persistence and consistency. I felt it was my job to be very, very consistent with the message: “Here’s where we’re going, and here’s why.” I told that to people over and over and over again over the course of, literally, years. And that’s where patience comes in: there’s no way that it’s the program of the week, or the program of the month, or the program of the year. It really has to be the commitment of a lifetime… and it’s one mind at a time.

Read more of this interview with “radical industrialist” Ray Anderson at SUNfiltered.

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