At 72, we might think that Interface founder and former CEO Ray Anderson could take it easy. After all, Anderson’s the man who, at age 60, totally transformed his own way of thinking and doing business, and became an advocate of manufacturing processes that mimic nature’s ability to recycle wastes into feedstock for other organisms. Anderson revolutionized the production of industrial carpeting and floor coverings, and coined the maxim heard on the lips of many CEOs these days, “Do well by doing good.” One would think he’s earned some time off, but he’s still out there spreading the word: green business can be profitable.
The UK’s Guardian published a profile of the green giant of industry on the occasion of a speech at Oxford University’s Oriel College. Writer Mark Tran notes that Anderson can still bring a room to its feet, and the people in that room could be treehuggers or corporate executives:
Mr Anderson, with that soft drawl characteristic of the southern state of Georgia (think Jimmy Carter), spoke for an hour and a half to a group of US academics at a conference on global ethics. After listening in rapt attention, they gave him a standing ovation. Of course, Mr Anderson was preaching to the converted, but his message would have impressed a business crowd as well.
As he noted right from the start: “I was as competitive and profit-minded as anyone else. I was the head of the largest producer of industrial carpets.”
Mr Anderson’s moment of epiphany came 10 years ago when he read Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce, described by one reviewer as a cultural and economic masterpiece. It was pure serendipity, as customers had begun asking awkward questions about what he was doing for the environment.
“It was an epiphanic spear in my heart, a life-changing moment; a new definition of success flooded my mind. I realised I was a plunderer and it was not a legacy I wanted to leave behind. I wept,” he said.
This is the kind of stuff audiences love, but Mr Anderson would be laughed out of executive suites if his company had not been successful. Mr Anderson said he was fertile ground for Mr Hawken’s message.
“I was 60. I was thinking of my legacy for the company I had founded, even questioning my future role. Should I just cut loose or help it find a new mission,” Mr Anderson told Guardian Unlimited.
In case it’s not obvious, Anderson’s a hero of mine — if you haven’t read his book Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise, do… Tran’s article concludes by showing why Anderson’s still such an inspirational figure: when asked about Interface getting lost in the shuffle when so many corporations are adopting sustainable policies and practices, he responded: “I see no other long term choice for industry to survive… Each of us has a role in this transformation. We must all learn to make peace with the earth, not to make war on it, or we will lose.” I’ve got a feeling Interface and Ray Anderson will continue to stand out…