The only industrialist I ever met who had a genuine, drop-to-your-knees, road-to-Damascus, life-changing epiphany about the role of industry in destroying the world was Ray Anderson. When I first interviewed him in the 1990s, he was a few years past the experience — he likened it to “a spear in the chest” — triggered by his reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. From that day forward, Anderson had a mission.
He was the CEO of Interface, a company that manufactured and sold carpet. It was a nasty, toxic, wasteful business that made a lot of money. After his conversion, Anderson announced that he intended to move his company to full sustainability and zero waste. In a little more than a decade, defying universal expectations of his failure, he was halfway there; he had cut pollution and waste by half, had converted most of his operations to renewable energy, and was confident that Interface would achieve sustainability and zero waste by 2020.
A few years ago Anderson stepped away from the day-to-day CEO duties at Interface and took up full time the mission of an apostle, telling thousands of audiences and thousands of media interviewers the story of his conversion and its results. In meeting its goals of sustainability and waste reduction, Interface had seen constant, healthy growth in sales and profits. It was a win-win scenario that got standing ovations from crowds of industrialists, making it easy to believe real change was on the way.
It wasn’t. When the industrialists went back to their offices, what they had learned from Ray Anderson’s 25 years of hard work and impassioned leadership was the value of greenwash in increasing sales. They launched PR campaigns about what they were thinking of doing, but they didn’t do it.
This week Ray Anderson, the unique industrialist who did the real work of moving a large business toward sustainability before he talked about it, died. One of the very few lights in the darkening industrial wasteland that blights our planet has gone out.
We’re going to miss him.