Remembering Ray Anderson: at the forefront of sustainable business

Sensemaking / Remembering Ray Anderson: at the forefront of sustainable business

Jonathan Porritt discusses the unique contribution of a legendary leader.

24 Oct 2011

Jonathan Porritt discusses the unique contribution of a legendary leader.

Ray Anderson died earlier this year, on 8 August. As the founder and public face of a company called InterfaceFLOR, I suspect Ray’s name will be known to most readers of Green Futures. But his unique contribution to the world of sustainability may not be.

I loved this man. Briefly, I was part of the ‘Dream Team’ that he pulled together at the start of Interface’s sustainability journey in 1995. We saw each other occasionally and corresponded regularly. He taught me a huge amount about the art of business leadership.

InterfaceFLOR is not a glamorous company. It makes carpet tiles. Ray fell in love with the simplicity and economy of the carpet tile long before he fell in love with the elegance and economy of sustainability. Interface was born of that passion – and a fierce determination to thrash the competition.

So here’s the potted version of how he became one of the pre-eminent business leaders in our world. In 1994, he read a book called ‘The Ecology of Commerce’ by Paul Hawken. He described that moment as “an epiphany” – one that drove “a spear through my chest – a spear that will always be there”. In true topdown style, he then enlisted the whole of the company. He put sustainability at the heart of their shared ambitions, and held their feet to the fire for the next 16 years.

This leadership is special enough – but it isn’t what made Ray really stand out. There are, after all, a growing number of CEOs and chairs who can legitimately claim to be real leaders in this area. I’ve often reflected on what was distinctive about Ray’s style compared with that of his peers.

For one thing, he read a lot. Most CEOs today just don’t read. They’re too busy. If it isn’t boiled down to two sides and no more, it’s just too time-consuming. With the predictable result that a lot of them – however intelligent – are seriously ignorant.

Ray devoured books. He didn’t just read stuff, he hunted it down. Having discovered The Natural Step (TNS), which remains the most rigorous of all the different models for understanding sustainability, he insisted on nailing it down to the last detail. Then he put every single employee in the company through a basic TNS training course.

All this made Ray a bit of a geek. Back in 1995, he coerced his research department into a detailed analysis of every input (by way of energy and raw materials) into Interface’s production systems – all 1,224 billion pounds of it!

But this knowledge brought responsibility. Ray described himself as “a legal thief, convicted by myself alone as a plunderer of the Earth”, and this was no mere rhetorical flourish. It was a moral charge, demanding reparation. In wanting “to do well by doing good”, he had no truck with cornball corporate social responsibility, amounting to little more than marginal amelioration of the damage we do by living the way that we live.

I’m just not sure how many CEOs today feel that personal, moral obligation. For many, making it ‘corporate’ just distances it, sparing the personal pain.

I’ve talked with a lot of InterfaceFLOR colleagues over the years. Ray was also up there for them: not on a pedestal, but out ahead. Driven, but always modest, both about his own role (which, in religious terms, he thought of as a ‘vessel’, but never the fount of authority itself) and about the role of InterfaceFLOR – a tiny player, after all, in the heaving maelstrom that is the global economy.

For Ray, it was always head, heart and soul. He was a deeply religious man. He had an epiphany, after all, not some bog-standard moment of truth. He described the basic systems of measurement that InterfaceFLOR adopted (its ‘EcoMetrics’) as “God’s currency – this being, after all, God’s Earth, not ours”.

That didn’t always work for him when he was in full advocacy mode. Forum for the Future hosted a seminar for Ray with some of the chief executives of our partner companies back in 2003. He absolutely bowled them over with the business case, including the tens of millions of dollars that InterfaceFLOR was saving (even then) from its eco-efficiency initiatives. But as soon as he moved over to explaining why this was all so important, personally and spiritually, eye contact was lost, apprehension took over from approbation, and the energy went missing.

Ray Anderson owned his sustainability in every fibre of his being like no other CEO I’ve ever met, with the possible exception of Anita Roddick. And that’s why I loved him.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.

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