Confessions of a Radical Industrialist

Photo: McClelland & Stewart
Environmentalist and CEO Ray Anderson talks about epiphanies, legacies, corporate culture—and whether the global recession has brought us to a tipping point.

Ray Anderson's Georgian accent and soft speech belies his passion for business and sustainability. Yet America’s so-called “Greenest CEO” all but invented corporate environmental sustainability when, 15 years ago, he began to revolutionize the way his company, Interface, Inc., manufactured carpet tiles. Here’s a snapshot of Interface's successes: Between 1996 and 2008, the company cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by 71 percent (in absolute tons), yet sales increased by two-thirds and earnings doubled. And that’s just a part of the story.

Now, in his new book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist (McClelland & Stewart), Anderson lays out a roadmap to sustainability that other companies can follow. He demonstrates how to tackle the “seven faces of mount sustainability”—his term for the environmental and management challenges that must be overcome. But more importantly, he shows that if one has the will, there really is a way. After all, if Interface, a company that used “so many petroleum-derived chemicals that we weren’t just dependent on the oil companies, we were like an extension of them,” can be transformed, surely all the others can, too. 

Green Living interviewed Ray Anderson while he was on his book tour in Canada.

GL: You’ve just released a new book titled Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. Why do you call yourself a radical?

Ray Anderson: I think what we [at Interface] did 15 years ago was pretty radical—a sharp departure from the status quo. A petroleum-intensive company saying we’re going to get off oil and coal and run an abusive company in a way that no longer abuses the Earth? People thought I was around the bend. That’s what radicals do. They go around the bend [laughs].

GL: Why is carpet making so oil-intensive?

RA: Practically every raw material is petroleum-derived. And it’s also an energy-intensive business, where most of the energy comes from fossil fuels. Also, there are a lot of chemicals used. Processes like dyeing, for example, use some pretty bad stuff, and there are all kinds of additives that are highly questionable. To be clear, I’m casting back 15 years here, because practically all of that has changed at Interface.

GL: How did you break free from the conventional wisdom of the time that suggested that attempting to “green” such an industry was akin to corporate suicide?

RA: When I read Paul Hawken’s book [The Ecology of Commerce], it was an epiphanic experience. There was no way of going back. I think that’s generally true of the environmental community. Have you ever know an ex-environmentalist?

GL: No, I don’t think so...

RA: ...Yeah. Once you get it you cannot “unget” it. For every one of them that becomes one of us, there is one less of them and one more of us [laughs]. And the ratchet goes click and it moves in one direction.

So it was such a profound experience for me, there was no denying it, no going back, no clinging to any more status quo.

GL: It wasn’t that you had a tendency toward choosing the path less travelled in business?

RA: Well, I was 60 years old and, subconsciously, starting to think about legacy—what was this “third child” of mine was going to grow up to be? So that was undoubtedly working away. But Hawken touched a raw nerve in me. That didn’t mean it touched anybody else, though. We had a company full of people who had never heard of this stuff.

GL: Was changing the minds of the people around you—the corporate culture, if you will—the most challenging part?

RA: Absolutely. Einstein said it a long time ago: We can’t solve a problem with the same thinking we used to create it. So it really and truly required a whole new way of thinking about the business, and that happens one mind at a time. You just can’t dictate to people how they’ll think. People have to find it on their own. My job was just to stay on message, consistently and persistently, year after year.

GL: What has been the biggest reward of putting the company on the path to sustainability?

RA: I think the single most satisfying is the mid-year 2009 figures we just got. Our net greenhouse gas emissions are down 99%, which means we’re operating our company practically from planet neutral. We don’t think we’ll end the year at 99%—it’ll be at least in the 90s though—but that’s enormous progress. And the important thing is that it shows that it’s possible.

GL: Showing that all of this is possible seems to be at the root of why you wrote this book.
RA: Yes, exactly. When we convened our first environmental task force meeting 15 years ago, I made a speech that sent [my Interface team] into a tailspin. I not only challenged them to lead Interface to sustainability, but to go beyond: to make Interface a restorative company. They really struggled with that. They said, “That sounds like perpetual motion. How do you do that?" As we talked about it, we realized the importance of influence. That’s how we become restorative. Not just by what we do but by what we influence others to do. So the book in a way is part of the basic strategy of becoming a restorative company.

GL: You write that “the business case for sustainability is crystal clear.” Yet, we’ve seen so few companies make truly significant inroads in terms of sustainability. Do you agree? 

RA: I think it’s a growing number. We’re talking about societal transformation, and anytime that happens, you have the normal distribution, the bell-shaped curve. At one end of the curve you’ve got the “early movers” and behind them the “fast followers.” Then at the other end of the curve you’ve got the “never movers,” who are clinging to the status quo. In between you’ve got the vast middle ground. It’s when the middle ground moves that something becomes mainstream. We’re not mainstream, yet. We’ve got the early movers and some fast followers, and these numbers are growing every day. At some point, we’ll reach a tipping point where the middle ground moves. When that happens, then we will have had a societal transformation—a total paradigm shift. What has to happen is mental; it’s in the minds of people.

GL: In the prologue to the book, which you wrote right when Wall Street was in crisis, you were still hopeful that a “new sanity will overtake the world of business, industry, and finance, and its analog, the stock market.” Has the global recession brought us closer to the tipping point?

RA: I think that it has probably changed a lot of minds in terms of the difference between needs and wants. But I expect that this one shock, as severe as it has been, is not enough to move society, the whole market.

GL: So what will it take to transform things?

RA: The single biggest impetus would come from putting a price on carbon. And I think only the government can do that to internalize those externalities associated with carbon. Carbon gets a free ride today and it is terribly destructive. It needs to pay for its destruction through a price on carbon itself.

GL: So government is part of the solution. Are there other pieces to it?

RA: Well, yes. I think that the fundamental point of the book is that unless industry and business move, all the rest of it will not matter.

GL: You’ve taken Interface a good way up Mount Sustainability, as you call it, so you’re far ahead of most companies and CEOs on this issue. Do you have any advice for others who are aiming to get to the summit, too?

RA: I think that in our own experience [at Interface], and I’ll just fall back on that, the products that we make and sell everyday to make our living have to meet every test of the market—every conventional test as well as the environmental tests. We concluded early on that we should never foist an inferior product on our customers in the name of sustainability. (And we’ve seen that happen with other companies, the “fast followers” who really made some back product in their haste to catch up.) So I think that if I had any advice to give, it would be to make sure your product meets every conventional test of the market and then add the environmentally responsible frosting on the cake. Green for the sake of green may not cut it. In fact, there’s another way to think about that: The brownest product there is is the greenest product that doesn’t work. Not only is it not working, but also it’s giving green a bad name.