Wednesday, 17 August 2011 20:11

In Memoriam: Ray Anderson

The green business world lost a great pioneer in corporate sustainability when Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman of Interface, Inc., passed away in August at 77. Transforming his conventional global business into a leading mission-driven enterprise, Anderson left behind a legacy of visionary leadership.

Anderson founded Interface, Inc., the leading global producer of environmentally-friendly carpets for commercial, institutional, and residential markets. Interface’s mission is to achieve zero impact by 2020 and represent sustainability in “all its dimensions: people, process, product, place, and profits.”

Though now at the forefront of corporate responsibility, Interface originated in the traditional business world. In 1973, Anderson launched the company as a conventional producer following a standard environmentally destructive industrial model, and Interface grew to become the world’s largest producer of modular carpet.

But in 1994, Anderson was inspired by Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce, and came to see himself in his CEO role as a “plunderer of the earth,” awakened to the urgent need to change course. With a powerful new belief in Hawken’s message that the most environmentally destructive businesses of the world could also be the greatest agents of change, he set forth to lead the company through a dramatic transformation.

Interface left behind the industrial model Anderson called “take / make / waste” and began on a path to reach “the summit of Mount Sustainability.” Focusing on the key areas of footprint reduction, product innovation, and culture change, the company became a leader not only in achieving benchmarks but in transparency and corporate social responsibility reporting.  Interface also increased sales and doubled profits, proving that sustainability was profitable and could serve as a strong differentiator in the marketplace. Walk through the Interface journey on the company website.

As Anderson described his mission, “I wanted Interface, a company so oil-intensive you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry, to be the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable—to shut down the smokestacks, close off its effluent pipes, to do no harm to the environment and take nothing not easily renewed by the earth. Believe me when I say the goal is one enormous challenge.”

Hawken gave the eulogy at Anderson’s memorial service, speaking of him as a leader who “dreamed a world yet to come because dreams of a livable future are not coming from our politicians, bankers, and the media. For Ray, reimagining the world was a responsibility, something owed to our children’s children, a gift to a future that is begging for selflessness and vision.”

In his tribute to Anderson, Joel Makower of shared the poem “Tomorrow’s Child,” written by an Interface employee. Anderson would recite the poem to finish most of his speeches, as it inspired him to think of how his choices would impact future generations. Read the poem below, and listen to his reading and share in his vision for sustainable business in his 2009 TED talk.

Interface has a tribute video up on their website.

The employees of Interface have created a blog dedicated to Anderson’s memory. Learn more about Anderson’s life, work, and legacy through their memories and tributes.

Tomorrow’s Child
Without a name, an unseen face
and knowing not your time nor place
Tomorrow’s Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.

A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his sobering point of view
I saw a day that you would see,
a day for you, but not for me.

Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you.

Tomorrow’s Child, my daughter-son
I’m afraid I’ve just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.

Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander, what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.

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