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Climbing Mount Sustainability: Profile in Leadership Excellence

September 16, 2018
Ray Anderson died on August 8, 2011; however his leadership legacy lives on. In a turbulent period of economic uncertainty, emerging global competitors, and mounting concern over climate change and its impacts on how corporations conduct themselves, Anderson’s vision of a zero carbon footprint from his company should serve as an inspiration to all of us. Read on to learn about the man who was called the planet’s greenest CEO

Society is being inundated with messages, advertisements, celebrity appeals, books, and articles on the need for sustainable, environmental business and consumer practices. Companies espouse the great things they are doing to reduce waste and emissions and to be more corporately responsible. And indeed many firms are doing just that. But there’s also a lot of hype and smoke and mirrors. Trying to distill fact from fiction is not an easy process. But this post takes the upbeat approach, profiling one corporate leader who achieved amazing things over 15 years.

Meet Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface Inc. Based in Atlanta, Interface is one of the world’s largest interior furnishing companies, with plants in the U.S., Canada, England and Australia.
In 1994, company founder and chairman Ray Anderson initiated a process to transform the company using nature as the model. 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 (“the savings”) represented 28% of its operating income. Back in 2004, Anderson stated that the company was only one third of the way to eliminating waste: “It gets close to doubling your profit if you can eliminate waste.”

Anderson and his management team were inspired by Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry. The manager of product development was so inspired that he took his design team 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.

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. This was achieved by such means as eliminating certain processes or redesigning others to produce a waste-free, emission-free, effluent-free production line.

Anderson talked about 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. The faces are:

1) Eliminate waste: eliminate all forms of waste throughout the business
2) Benign emissions: eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities
3) Renewable energy: use all forms e.g., solar, wind, landfill gas, geothermal, biomass
4) Closing the loop: redesign processes and products using recovered and bio-based materials
5) Resource-efficient transportation: transport people and products efficiently to reduce waste
6) Sensitizing stakeholders: integrate sustainability principles to improve people’s lives
7) Redesign commerce: create a business model that supports sustainability-based commerce

Although Interface made significant progress over the years, Anderson had to work diligently at transforming the company’s corporate culture and ensuring that new employees share his vision. One major benefit Interface experienced is that it became a “magnet” for attracting talented people as word spread about the company, a notable occurrence in an industry with a poor reputation.

The focus and attention that Anderson devoted to his quest is indicative of a leader who knew how to achieve remarkable results. The competencies he used to effect lasting change were not unique to just the corporate world but in fact very relevant to the political world. Ray Anderson’s story should be an inspiration to those leaders who wish to demonstrate their companies’ social and environmental responsibility, yet also ensure their long-term economic viability.

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

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