In a word, Ray Anderson’s story is legendary. As the founder of Interface, Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet, he was an accomplished businessman and entrepreneur. He was your classic small-town kid who happened to make it big and create a global manufacturing company from scratch. He was the American dream. Despite his business success though, it was his 1994 personal epiphany that made him famous.
That year, after reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, Ray came to see the dark side of his business. He understood that his business, and the entire industrial world, was rapidly degrading the biosphere. Literally overnight, he began to believe that Interface must pursue a new purpose much grander and aspirational than returning value to shareholders. He believed that Interface must become a sustainable, and eventually regenerative, enterprise. Then he wanted Interface to inspire businesses around the world to create an industrial re-revolution.
In 1998, Ray wrote his first book, titled Mid-Course Correction. In that work, he laid out his vision for what a sustainable company might look like, and he called it the “prototypical company of the twenty-first century.” It was a compelling vision then, and no less compelling now. Read for yourself how Ray originally conceived of the sustainability journey that Interface was on more than two decades ago.
<<EXCERPT FROM PAGE 67>>
I have used [a] simile to describe sustainability as a mountain to be climbed. Let me expound. I have this mental picture of a mountain that is higher than Everest. It rises steeply out of a jungle that surrounds it. Most of us, people and companies, are lost and wandering around in that jungle, and don’t know the mountain exists at all. Rather, we are preoccupied with the threatening, competitive “animals” all around us. A few have sensed the upward slope of the mountain’s foothills under their feet. Still fewer have decided to follow the upward slope to see where it leads. And a very few are far enough along to have had a glimpse of the mountain through the leaves of the trees, to realize what looms ahead and above. Very few indeed have set their eyes and wills on the summit.
I am thankful that the people of Interface are in that small group. We have found the mountain’s seven faces that must be scaled. Moreover, we have a compass, The Natural Step, to help us stay focused and on track to the summit, and we’re developing EcoMetrics to measure our progress….
What will the view from there, from the vantage point of sustainability, be like? I believe it will be wonderful beyond description, and I hope to see it before I die. I also hope others, still lost in the jungle or just becoming conscious of the upward slope, even beginning to explore it, will hear our cries of joy through the foliage and rush ahead to follow our path, someday soon to join us at the summit (or better yet beat us there). There’s room there for everyone, and certainly anyone headed in that direction welcomes the companionship, as we seek to create the prototypical company of the twenty-first century, of the next industrial revolution.
Ray and Interface accomplished so much in their climb up Mount Sustainability, proving that when done right, sustainability was incredibly good for business. Unfortunately, Ray did not live to see Interface summit the mountain. His passing in 2011 was not the end of his legacy though, but rather a turning point. His company continues to climb and show that sustainability offers a better way. His family, of which I am honored to be a part, has also joined in the effort. We are advancing Ray’s legacy through the work of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.
Last year, we were proud to re-issue Ray’s first book with new content, now titled Mid-Course Correction Revisited. We preserved Ray’s original seven chapters, and I wrote six new ones that brought his story up-to-date and turned an eye toward the future of sustainable business. If Ray was still with us today, he would celebrate the good work that has been done to make sustainability mainstream in the corporate world. He would also say that, collectively, we all need to do more.
Here is another excerpt from the book, this time from one of the new chapters that I wrote. It’s my effort to describe the “more” that we need to do.
<<EXCERPT FROM PAGES 173-174>>
By now I hope you are convinced that the prototypical company of the twenty-first century just makes good sense. Resource efficiency, game-changing innovations, an engaged workforce, and a loyal marketplace are all rather persuasive. Yet those reasons do not account for perhaps the most compelling argument for creating such prototypical companies: They can help lead humanity away from the environmental abyss.
Obviously, we need more Interfaces, and on that front there is some good news. Quite a few companies are committed to pioneering truly sustainable enterprises, and they have benefitted much as Interface has.
The problem is, I do not think we can achieve sustainability at a truly global level just by replicating what Interface and its peer enterprises—Patagonia and Unilever, for instance—are doing. All of business and industry exists and operates in a broader economic system, so we need change at a systems level for it to be sufficiently significant and expedient to avoid catastrophe. We do not know how much time is left on the clock, but we know it is ticking.
Put another way, the creation of the prototypical company of the twenty-first century is not enough. We must also, collectively, create the prototypical economy of the twenty-first century.
Join me in a thought experiment. Let us compare the present day to the time of America’s founding fathers, focusing in on two general metrics: human quality of life and the health of natural systems.
From a quality-of-life standpoint, the differences are dramatic. Life expectancy is significantly longer today, driven primarily by lower infant mortality rates. Even with a global population that has grown tenfold, a higher percentage of people have easy access to daily essentials like food and water. Technological developments have radically transformed humanity’s capabilities in terms of mobility, communications, and education. If I had to guess, there aren’t many of us, in the developed world at least, who would trade in the present day for life 250 years ago.
From the standpoint of natural systems, the differences are just as dramatic. In the present day we have lost millions of acres of forestland. Rates of biodiversity loss have spiked as human development destroys ecosystems. Agricultural lands are losing topsoil at alarming rates. Stocks in fisheries around the globe are at critical levels. Toxic chemicals are now dispersed around the world, most of which had not even been invented 250 years ago. While I cannot say conclusively, I doubt that even a single natural system at the global level is healthier today than a quarter millennium ago.
Human quality of life has been increasing while natural systems have been declining, and these two trends are not coincidental. To the contrary, our current economic system is structured to drive these trends.
It is urgent that our economic system evolve, and I believe that creating the prototypical economy of the twenty-first century is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. It’s also one of our greatest opportunities. As proof, I need look no further than Ray Anderson’s example.
He showed that so much good could come from one company authentically committing to sustainability, from increased profits to better products to more empowered employees to a healthier planet. Just imagine if an entire economy was dedicated to the same values! I am convinced that it is possible for not only individual businesses to deliver on the triple-bottom line, but for economies to do that as well. We just need the collective will to imagine a better way, and then make that vision a reality.