Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes
A Reflection on the author and the book Business Lessons learned by a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson
Written by a self proclaimed “recovering plunderer,” the book- Business Lessons learned by a Radical Industrialist- is certainly a must read for the pragmatic environmentalist. While many that are purely environmentally minded seem annoyed by his “Upper class, capitalistic, republican demeanor” (as one of my colleagues put it), my mind was sparked by the light Anderson shares in this frank and honest discussion. After reading the book, I have spent several hours watching lectures by the author to get an even fuller feel of the authors approach, intent, and motives. I will endeavor to share that here.
IN 1973, an industrial engineer named Ray Anderson began a carpet tile business geared toward educational and corporate facility uses. Over time, Interface, Inc., based out of Atlanta, Georgia became a billion dollar industry working in more than six countries on four continents.
Then, in 1994, when founder and CEO Anderson was 60 years old, someone gifted him a copy of the book The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken. In that book, Hawken lays the blame of the environmental crisis squarely at the feet of Industry. Hawken also argues that no other force in the world is powerful enough to save us from the coming demise except for industry. Anderson reflected on this and thought, ‘if industry must lead the way, then who will lead industry?’ This he took up as his challenge.
I appreciated the honesty and vulnerability in the confession that his motives were, in large part, focused on monetary gain. This is, after all, industry. Businesses exist to make money. We can pretend they have loftier goals- and some have great secondary motives- but businesses have a duty to their share holders to make profitability the primary goal. The book does not come across as self-righteous as environmental preaching, as do many works in this field.
Ray Anderson and his company took on the task of dispelling the myth, the false notion, that one must chose between the environment and the economy. Ecological sustainability is not a zero sum game. There doesn’t have to be a loser. Being truly green- and not just green washing your industry- can be good for business. Designers and engineers were already asking his company “What are you doing for the environment?” so he knew the customer demand was there. As Anderson put it in an interview, “I thought it might be a good economic move, and I knew it was the right thing to do.” Interface, Inc. began climbing the “mountain of sustainability” by setting a goal of a zero carbon footprint. “Mission Zero”- as it was dubbed by Anderson- was an immediate boon of commercial profitability. Finally, Anderson had an answer to the question of what Interface was doing for the environment. But it could not be green washing. It would have to be a legitimate progress, to distinguish his company from his competitors. Anderson believed there must be a Goldie Locks spot between of capitalism and altruism and set out to achieve it.
The big problem of how to be ecologically and environmentally sustainable, was broken down into smaller manageable problems. The steps were clear enough to Anderson. The order of addressing this would be: waste, emissions, energy, material flaws, transportation of goods, the needed culture shift and, ultimately, the reinvention of commerce.
First, they set out to reduce waste. There is little need to explain how reducing waste has an immediate economic benefit by generating savings.
Next, they went upstream and began dealing with the suppliers of raw materials. Anderson held a meeting with all his suppliers. Understanding that ‘garbage in’ meant ‘garbage out,’ he required them to reveal all the raw materials in the products they were selling to Interface. Some would not reveal those materials. Those suppliers were replaced by companies that were at least willing to participate in the process. Then he intimated that they would have to clean up their products if they wished to continue selling to Interface. The message was clear, ‘come along the journey with us or lose our business.’
Then they addressed the issue downstream. They created a reverse logistical system to close the circle of the product by processing discarded carpet and reusing the materials. This system was designed to salvage materials from carpet from other manufacturers and not just their own. With over 5 billion lbs of carpet discarded every year- which takes an estimated 20,000 years to break down- this was a significant step toward cleaning up the environment. Annually discarded carpet represents one billion barrels of oil.
Soon Interface carpet was made of up to 70% recycled materials, and they have achieved a line of third party certified climate neutral carpet, which is called “COOL CARPET.” Finally, the company has incorporated solar panels, and has even funneled methane gas from local dumps to power their factories. Anderson attributes his companies‘ survival of the 2003-2004 recession to their framework of sustainability. Keeping cost down, creating a better product, galvanizing his people around the higher purpose of environmental consciousness, and the goodwill of the marketplace, were his lifelines, not his liabilities.
Anderson adds to the legacy of Hawken’s book, by writing his own book and lecturing around the world. He adds to the message of The Ecology of Commerce by insisting that the industrialized world must act, but it cannot fix this without an active government. Because of the nature of competitive commerce, there must also be a price-tag placed on carbon by the government and the real price of oil must be realized, Anderson argues. Having reflected on the life and work of this man and his company, I am encouraged in my faith in the ability of mankind to change. When I consider the impact a single book had on this businessman, I am brought to believe again in the power of the written word. If Hawken’s book only effected change in the single life of Anderson, it would have been worth the writing. But we can assume it has affected the lives of so many others. When it is all said and done, Business Lessons learned by a Radical Industrialist is a book about the impact of another book.