A CEO RESPONDS TO A SPEAR THROUGH THE HEART
About two years ago Ray Anderson was happily running his company, when he
received what he calls a "spear through the heart."
The company, Interface, makes carpet tiles -- carpet you lay down in squares.
In 21 years Anderson built up a business with 26 factories in six countries,
customers in 110 countries, 5800 employees, and nearly a billion dollars in
annual sales. Everything was rosy, until his research director asked him to
address a staff meeting with an environmental vision for the company.
"I sweated for three weeks over what I would say to that group," says
Anderson. Just then someone sent him Paul Hawken's book "The Ecology of
Commerce." In it Anderson found his vision and his spear.
Hawken's book opens with a description of the night he stood up to receive an
award for his own company's environmental excellence. Looking at the impact
his business on the earth, Hawken realized that he deserved no such award --
and no company did.
The book goes on to list the many ways in which the human economy violates
laws of the planet. We mobilize an increasing amount of stuff from the
crust and spit it out as waste. We pour poisons into our own life support
systems. We draw down an unreplenished supply of fossil fuels and in the
process derange the atmosphere.
Anderson, an engineer from Georgia Tech, got the message. His carpet tiles
nylon and polyvinyl chloride, made from oil through polluting processes.
last forever in landfills. His business is not an asset to the planet and
it's not sustainable.
That was the spear through the heart.
But Hawken's message is not a doomsday cry, it's a challenge. "Industry, the
largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on earth, must take the lead
in saving the earth from man-made collapse," he says.
Anderson went right to work on that challenge. First came the speech to his
staff. He said his vision was "to make Interface the first name in
ecology, worldwide, through substance, not words. To convert Interface into
restorative enterprise -- putting back more than we take from the earth. To
achieve sustainability and then to help others achieve sustainability, even
Anderson says the speech "surprised me, stunned them, and galvanized us into
action." Two years later Interface is proceeding to clean up its act with
hundreds of projects along seven broad fronts.
One front is to run the company on benign energy sources, so "we never have
take another drop of oil from the ground." That means renewable energy and
before that radical energy efficiency, "so we can afford the investment in
alternative sources." Interface is working with Rocky Mountain Institute,
Georgia Tech and Georgia Power to figure out how to do it.
Another front is zero waste. Anderson's engineers found 25 different waste
streams coming out of one factory and calculated that eliminating them
company-wide could save $70 million in disposal costs. So far, by source
reduction and recycling, they have captured $20 million of that -- which is
paying for much of the rest of the effort.
Closed-loop recycling is another goal. Early on Anderson's team came up with
the idea of leasing carpet instead of selling it. Customers will not buy a
carpet, they'll rent one. Interface will own it, maintain it, take it back
when its useful life is over and recycle it into new carpet. "Nylon
are very precious," says Anderson. "We want to spend the rest of our days
harvesting yesteryear's carpets and recycling them, with zero scrap going to
the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem -- and run the whole thing
That's both a financial and a technical challenge. Banks are having a hard
time with the concept of a perpetual lease. And the process of separating
carpet from backing and reclaiming both works only in the lab so far.
is asking his suppliers -- the biggest chemical companies in the world -- to
help him pull this one off.
Some of his business friends think he's crazy. They've been giving him books
that counter Hawken and other environmentalists, books that say forget it,
doomsday stuff is hype, there's no problem. Anderson has read them soberly
considered the odds. He calls one side of the argument "alarmist" and the
other side "foot draggers."
"The alarmist perceives the earth to be in crisis, sees our actions as
inadequate, and predicts the outcome to be collapse. The foot dragger
perceives things as not so bad, even getting better, sees our actions as good
enough, maybe too good -- meaning expensive and misguided -- and sees the
outcome as an abundant future for all. Here's the paradox: the surest way to
realize the alarmists' outcome, collapse, is to accept the foot draggers'
The surest way to realize the foot draggers' outcome, abundance, is to
the alarmists' view that we are in trouble and have to change."
So he's changing. The amazing thing, you discover when you meet Ray
is that he is having a blast. He and his colleagues are thrilled by the
vision, excited by the challenge.
"We are all part of the continuum of humanity and life," Anderson said in a
recent speech to other corporate CEOs. "We will have lived our brief span
either helped or hurt that continuum and the earth that sustains all life.
It's that simple. Which will it be?"
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at