In Memory of the World’s Greenest CEO

Jim Taggart's picture

Sometimes people are taken from us much too soon – people who are doing extraordinary good for the planet.

Some eight years ago when I worked for the federal Department of Industry, I was involved in policy work on Canada’s manufacturing sector and its struggling global competitiveness. I was researching what’s called sustainable manufacturing, fancy speak for how companies can still make a profit while being socially and environmentally responsible.

A colleague suggested I check out a flooring company called Interface, based in Atlanta Georgia. He said that the CEO was doing amazing stuff.

Meet Ray Anderson, a businessman who did a complete turnaround in the early nineties by initiating a lifelong journey to create a company that would have no detrimental environmental impact – in fact neutral – all the while producing a profit and providing jobs to people in a wide variety of countries.

Years later as a retired public servant, who was actively involved in building a leadership website-blog, I wrote an e-book that has been read around the world. Entitled Becoming a Holistic Leader, the e-book included a series of vignettes of exemplary leaders in Canada and the United States.

As I said at the opening, people who are doing a lot of good for the planet are sometimes taken from us too soon. Ray Anderson’s recent passing at age 77 was very unfortunate. In his honor, I am sharing the vignette of Ray from the 2nd edition of my Holistic Leadership e-book.

Ray Anderson grew up in Georgia during the end of the Great Depression and World War II. After graduating from college he worked for almost 20 years in industry. Then in 1973 he took the plunge, leaving his employer to form Interface, drawing on an idea, his life savings and funds from a few investors.

Today, Atlanta-based Interface Inc. is one of the world’s largest flooring companies, with plants in the United States, Canada, England and Australia. However, the company’s growth and evolution has been far from ordinary. For example, in 1994 Anderson took a gamble and initiated a process to transform the company using nature as the model. (Anderson’s 2009 book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose-Doing Business by Respecting the Earth, released in 2009, is an excellent read).

His QUEST process (Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions and Teamwork) focused on eliminating waste from cost and measuring workers against perfection. For example, it was found that 10% of each sales dollar went to waste. Between 1994 and 2004, Interface calculated that the elimination of waste represented 28% of its operating income. And from 1996 (his baseline year) to 2008 Interface cut its greenhouse emissions by 71 % in absolute tons! Yet sales increased 66% and earnings doubled. Anderson has more than amply demonstrated that business can make money while reducing its carbon imprint on the planet.

Anderson and his management team were inspired earlier on by Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry. The manager of product development was so moved that he took his design team deep into the forest to study nature to determine how floor covering could be produced using nature’s design principles. The outcome was new flooring, which when installed has virtually no waste since cut pieces are reintegrated into the production process.

“Everything stays in the flow, the material loop. All of that is basically emulating nature in an industrial system, and that remains our goal,” asserts Anderson. One of Interface’s measures is carbon intensity, the amount of petroleum removed from the earth and then processed through the supply chain to yield one dollar of revenue. The company’s carbon intensity fell by one third over nine years, and it closed 39% of its smokestacks and 55% of its effluent pipes.

Anderson refers to climbing Mount Sustainability in Interface’s pursuit of sustainability. Understanding how to climb each of the seven “faces” to the peak will yield a zero environmental footprint. His vision is called Mission Zero, referring to Interface achieving a zero carbon footprint by 2020.
Note: The Seven Faces comprise: eliminate waste, benign emissions, renewable energy, redesign processes and products, resource-efficient transportation, sensitize stakeholders, and redesign the business model.

What makes Anderson such an intriguing person and exceptional leader is that he’s on a never-ending quest to reduce waste and to cut emissions in order to reach a zero carbon footprint. Although employees are proud of their collective achievements, Anderson has had to work diligently at transforming the company’s corporate culture and ensuring that all employees share his vision. Despite low staff turnover, it’s an ongoing process to ensure that the company’s values remain engrained in everyone, and that new employees are quickly brought into the fold.

Ray Anderson exemplifies what it means to practice stewardship and to be a true leader in enrolling and aligning his employees towards a common purpose and shared vision. He sets, and is, the benchmark to which executive leaders should aspire.

Reflection Question: Whether you’re a senior executive, middle manager, thought leader or an aspiring leader, how do you influence others? Do you have a personal vision?

The status quo is a very powerful opiate and when you have a system that seems to be working and producing profits by the conventional way of accounting for profits. It’s very hard to make yourself change. But we all know that change is an inevitable part of business. Once you have ridden a wave just so far, you have to get another wave. We all know that. For us, becoming restorative has been that new wave and we have been riding it for 13 years now. It’s been incredibly good for business.
– Ray Anderson