Ray Anderson, the CEO of InterfaceFLOR, died this week. He called himself a radical industrialist, and stood as an icon for many on account of his brazen–and successful–efforts to transform InterfaceFLOR, an industrial carpet manufacturer, into a responsible business. Perhaps most importantly, he demonstrated that intolerance for environmental exploitation can be highly profitable. In illuminating the financial costs associated with waste and poor resource management, Ray won support from his shareholders. They saw his radical transformation of Interface’s material use and product as lucrative rather than a gamble on behalf of morality.
“When you are being asked to make the business case for sustainability — perhaps ask them to make the business case for being un-sustainable.”
In the mid 1990s, while struggling to address InterfaceFLOR’s environmental policies, Ray read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. He began to see the role that companies, like Interface, played in crippling the environment. In response, he launched a comprehensive plan to reconstruct, bit by bit, the entire supply chain.
“We began to tackle the face of mountain we identified as waste. We defined waste…as any cost that we incurred that does not add value to our customer and that translates to doing everything right the first time, every time. It’s not just waste material, scrapped and low quality and so forth. If you send something to the wrong destination and have to get it back and reship it – that’s waste. If you incur a bad debt – that’s waste. So we defined waste very broadly and over time we actually said that any energy that comes from fossil fuel by our definition is waste and we need to eliminate it…. It became very clear very quickly this was the smart thing to do. Not only did we start to generate answers for those customers, they embraced us for what we were trying to do. The goodwill in the market place has just been stunning. The rest of the business case is pretty simple. I cost it down not up.”
Seventeen years later, InterfaceFLOR has cut both landfill waste and water usage by 80%, reduced energy used per product unit by 43% and lowered greenhouse gases by 44%. Thirty percent of the company’s energy now comes from renewable sources. As Ray knew, “There are noble fortunes to be made in the transition to sustainability.” Interface has saved $433 million between 1995 and 2010, an awesome amount that much exceeds the company’s investments in sustainability.
Beyond demonstrating that responsible business is profitable, Ray racked up hard evidence that the profit doesn’t lie in the emotional branding of t-shirts or shoes but in revolutionizing the way an industry, even manufacturing, functions.
In determining to leave no mark on the earth, Ray left an immortal mark on us.