At a time when we need visionary leaders more than ever, the loss of Ray Anderson last August was a body blow. Awakened years ago by an epiphany about the damage his carpet industry was doing to the environment, Ray dedicated the latter part of his life to proving that an international corporation could thrive while leaving zero negative impact on the biosphere. He became the archetype of a twenty-first-century corporate leader—the Chief Solutions Officer in a world that badly needs solutions.
The first time I met Ray, we sat together on a bus to his meeting with a new task force he had created to shape his company’s environmental vision. Ray was nervous. He was about to tell his employees that Interface Inc. was embarking on an uncharted path to become the greenest corporation on the planet. He didn’t know how he’d explain it.
But in his gentle southern drawl, Ray cast a spell on his employees that night, telling them how he had reached an “aha” moment about his company’s impact on the earth. He said the realization hit him like a “spear in the chest.” He gave his employees the mission of proving that an industry—even a petroleum-intensive company like theirs—could be sustainable and profitable at the same time. He called it Mission Zero. I’m sure his employees never thought of their jobs the same way again.
In 1997, Ray became co-chair of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), an ambitious initiative in the Clinton administration to develop a Mission Zero plan for the nation. By 1999, the PCSD produced 140 recommendations, but most of them went dormant in 2001 when a new administration took office.
Several years later, I asked for Ray’s help. As he told in his last book—Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist—I approached him in 2006 to ask that he dust off his PCSD gavel to chair a project called the National Leadership Summits for a Sustainable America. He agreed. Over the next two years, in four conferences at a secluded retreat in Wisconsin, we convened some of the nation’s best sustainability experts to develop a fresh set of ideas that would put “green” back on the national agenda.
The principal outcome was the Presidential Climate Action Project, conceived by David Orr and chaired by Ray over the following four years. By then, Ray was in constant demand as an international speaker in addition to leading his company. But in all of these projects, he never missed a meeting, never left early, never skipped a conference call, and never turned down a request for help. He kept his commitments and his word. Always.
For that reason, as well as his generosity and soft-spoken manner, I thought of Ray as a new-age gentleman of the old school. He also was a man completely dedicated to his mission. With his unwavering trajectory to make his company a model of corporate responsibility, Ray had learned to channel the energy of that spear that had hit him in the chest many years ago.
It was David Orr who relayed the first news of Ray’s death. David received an e-mail from a mutual friend, saying simply, “We lost Ray.”
Ray Anderson served on Solutions’ editorial board. TIME magazine named him one of its Heroes of the Environment. He was featured in countless documentary films, articles, and books. His profound influence on his company and its employees led Fortune magazine to name Interface one of the Top 100 Companies to Work for in America.
Ray proved that corporate morality need not be an oxymoron and that in the hard calculus of the business world Mission Zero is a plus. He did it all with unfailing grace, clear vision, a faultless compass, intelligence, humility, and charm. The world and my heart both stopped for a moment when I heard that he had lost his long battle with cancer. We need many, many more leaders like him, but those of us who witnessed his work know he can never be replaced.