Modest Man, Ambitious Mission

Dec. 21, 2004
Interface CEO Ray Anderson believes you should change the way you do business and join him in pursuit of sustainable development.

Ray C. Anderson hardly fits the popular picture of a crusading environmentalist. He is a modest man, a reflective and soft-spoken person. But hes pursuing a mission thats anything but modest. Absolutely convinced that prosperity, opportunity, and a healthy environment can coexist, Anderson wants to change the ways America does business. For him, the "green wall" doesnt exist and simply complying with regulations is a half-decade out of date. The CEO of Atlanta-based Interface Inc. openly admires the initial accomplishments of the four-year-old Council on Sustainable Development, a Presidential panel of which he has been cochair since June 1997. A diverse group of people drawn from business, labor, government, and public-interest groups, the council has made 38 policy recommendations, including shifting U.S. tax policy to discourage environment-damaging production and consumption decisions while still encouraging employment and economic opportunity. "Its remarkable that people from such different points of view agree," Anderson states. "It says youve got an issue that transcends politics and individual interests. [It says] were all in this together." The job of the of the Presidents council now, Anderson says, is to help implement the recommendations--and to move the U.S. closer to what he and the council call a "sustainable America," a socially just nation with both a growing economy and a safe, healthy living environment. It could be a tough task. "The council has no authority to do anything," acknowledges Anderson, who like his panel colleagues is paid nothing. "All we can do--and all we are supposed to do--is achieve consensus, and make policy recommendations, and to applaud success and raise awareness on several specific fronts." For example, the council is exploring what a 21st-century environmental-management system should look like. Chances are that itll be more carrot and less stick than todays approach. Too, the council is trying to assess the environmental impact of the American capital that flows into foreign nations. Anderson hopes the council will be able to stage a national conference on sustainable development in the spring of 1999. "We hope [it] will attract the attention of the entire population of the United States, not just the [converted who are already in the] choir. And we would hope that there would be an exhibition in connection with it. Environmentally friendly technologies would be on display. Companies would put their best foot forward to be part of this parade. There would be experts so that the science [and economics were] accurately explained to the people, and the technologies were accurately examined, and the environmental impacts as well as the social consequences were explored comprehensively and intelligently." Such efforts define an environmental direction for the U.S., says Anderson, who has no doubts where the U.S. should go. "We have to head in the direction of sustainability--or we will die as a species. Self-preservation will move us in the direction of sustainability. The question is how quickly will we do it?" Thats not the only relevant question. Another: How much leadership are CEOs like Anderson providing? From Andersons perspective, the answer is, "Probably not enough." "Unless the CEO gets it, [sustainability] wont happen in a company to its fullest potential. Midlevel staff people can drive it just so far--and then [theyll] bog down in frustrations." Anderson insists, "The greater the sense of urgency [the CEO] gives it, the further it goes and the faster it goes throughout the company." Other CEOs looking for strategic goals and best practices would be well-advised to review what Interface is doing. A global, $1 billion manufacturer of commercial and industrial interiors, it aims to be an ecologically sustainable corporation by the year 2000--and eventually to be a restorative enterprise that, working with other companies, actually improves the environment. Anderson has Interface pursuing an interrelated seven-step process to sustainability:

  • Zero waste. An internal waste-reduction effort focused on eliminating product costs that dont add customer value. Accumulated savings: $37.5 million.
  • Benign emissions. Priority being given to eliminating molecular waste that has negative or toxic effects on the environment.
  • Renewable energy. Reduce energy demands of manufacturing while substituting sustainable sources (such as solar) for nonrenewable sources (such as petroleum).
  • Close the loop. Redesign products and processes for recycling.
  • Resource-efficient transportation. Use technology and multiple factory locations to increase the flow of information while reducing the transport of people and products.
  • Sensitivity. Create a community of understanding that comprehends the functioning of natural systems and the human impact on them.
  • Redesign commerce. Focus on the delivery of value rather than the delivery of material.
The pursuit of sustainability, Anderson believes, gives Interface a competitive advantage, starting with the top line. "Our customers appreciate what we are doing, and many of them sense they can help," he says. "It is really important for us to succeed financially at this, because that will set an example for other companies--and not just in our industry."
About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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