The Climb Up Mount Sustainability


Ray C. Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet, began the long, slow climb up what he calls “Mount Sustainability” 15 years ago.

As part of the Sustainability and Renewable Energy Forum at the Darden School of Business, Anderson spoke to the Darden Community on Thursday, November 29 about what he calls “Mission Zero”: Interface’s quest to be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits—by 2020—and in doing so will become restorative through the power of influence.

In his new book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Anderson—who starred in the 2004 Canadian document, “The Corporation,” and was named one of TIME International’s “Heroes of the Environment” in 2007—describes his journey to re-think and re-design every aspect of the company’s operations to meet its sustainability goals.

Here, he shares some of his “green” ideas.

Q: How did Paul Hawkens’ book The Ecology of Commerce inspire your environmental vision for Interface?

A: In the summer of 1994, we began to hear a question from some of our customers that we had never heard before: What is your company doing for the environment? We had no answers. Zip. We decided to form a global task force on sustainability, and just as I was sweating a speech I had to give to kick it off, in a propitious moment, Hawkens’ book landed on my desk. … I quickly got to the book’s central points: (1) The biosphere is in decline; (2) The biggest culprit is the industrial system; and (3) The telling point: There is only one institution on earth that is large enough, powerful enough, pervasive enough and wealthy enough to fix that, and it’s the same institution that’s doing the damage—the institution of business and industry. That hit me like a spear in the chest.

I used Hawken’s material to make that speech to the task force, and it stunned them. I challenged them—16 people—to lead our company into sustainability and beyond by giving back to the environment more than we take.

Q. You call Interface’s mission “Mission Zero” …

A: Mission Zero is our promise to eliminate all of our environmental impacts by the year 2020. That means zero waste, 100 percent renewable energy, zero harmful emissions, 100 percent recycling of raw materials, transportation that’s climate neutral and resource efficient, and a total shift in culture that embraces the finiteness of the earth (rather than the infiniteness of the Earth, the way we seem to act today), and even one that is in a position to reinvent commerce: the way we go to market producing products that meet needs not wants.

Q: You will address Darden students—future business leaders—this afternoon. What will be your message to them?

A: I will take the themes from my new book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. The mindset that underlies the present industrial system is a flawed mindset – therefore, we have a flawed system. We need a new mindset, which I will attempt to define. I’ll talk some high-level stuff, and I’ll get down in the trenches, too, about how you do this. And I’ll end up with seven, real-life examples of sustainability in action—down on the factory floor and in the design studio—to demonstrate the kind of innovation that has come out of this well spring of innovation called sustainability.

To watch the video of Ray Anderson’s talk, please visit our YouTube Channel.

Founded in 1955, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business improves society by developing principled leaders in the world of practical affairs.

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