Ray Anderson, RIP

Ray Anderson addresses the TED conference in 2009. Unlike most, for 25 tears he actually walked the walk of sustainability in industry. (Photo by whiteafrican/Flickr)

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.

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3 Responses to Ray Anderson, RIP

  1. Gail Zawacki says:

    I’m so sorry to hear this. I haven’t even seen it mentioned anywhere else. I have seen videos of him speaking – what an inspiration. It is a terrible loss.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Yes, it is. I expect it escaped notice because of the resources needed to cover Sarah Palin’s non-candidacy for the title of next captain of the Titanic. Not that I’m bitter….

  2. I learned about Ray Anderson from a documentary that had been made on his determined effort to make his carpet business environmentally-friendly. A Ray of hope, so to speak. But I didn’t know he had left his position as CEO to spread the word that profits AND sustainability could actually co-exist. This is the first I’ve heard of it.

    Another hope dashed.