In Memoriam: Ray C. Anderson (1934-2011)

In Memoriam: Ray C. Anderson (1934-2011)

One of the most powerful and charismatic promoters of the green  revolution died last week, leaving behind a thriving company and a  legacy of industrial sustainability.

Industrial carpet tile is not exactly glamorous. It’s the kind of design necessity that’s easily overlooked, and it might seem like there isn’t much room for innovation with something so basic.

Yet Ray C. Anderson, founder of Interface – one of the largest carpeting manufacturers in the world – revolutionized the multi-billion dollar business, turning it from an entirely petroleum-based industry to a leading innovator in sustainability and attracting other companies to follow suit.

Just three days before Anderson died on August 8 at the age of 77, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Anderson founded Interface in 1973, but it was in 1994, after reading Paul Hawken’s influential book The Ecology of Commerce that he formulated his life’s mission. The book famously outlines, in no uncertain terms, how the industrial system, which includes manufacturers like Interface, was destroying the earth.

As Anderson often said the book was an epiphany for him. After reading it he began to set a goal for his company: to be 100 per cent sustainable by the year 2020. The Mission Zero initiative, which Anderson made official in 2006, set an ambitious course that also inspired many other manufacturers to re-examine their own toxic methods.

According to John Elkington, chair of the British think tank SustainAbility, even Walmart responded to Anderson’s mission. The world’s largest department store sent two teams to visit the Georgia-based Interface facilities. Two of those team members came away inspired by the possibilities for making their company’s supply chains more sustainable; they’re now Walmart’s top executives.

In Hawken’s estimation, Anderson delivered over a 1,000 keynotes and plenary speeches, becoming “arguably the most eloquent spokesperson on behalf of ecological issues in the world, possessed of a great kindness, a great integrity and unswerving resolve to climb Mount Sustainability.” Anderson’s own book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, recounts the 50-plus years of his career, including his midlife transformation into a spokesman for ecologically sound practices.

Anderson took the time to talk to Azure in 2009, providing background on the developing technologies that allow today’s manufacturers to push recycling further than ever, and the attitudinal shifts he witnessed over the course of his career. “The question immediately arises, ‘How many years are you talking about in terms of future generations?’,” Anderson said. “We’re past the carrying capacity of the earth and at some point you encounter collapse …. So how in the world do you deal with that – those unmet needs – and stay within the carrying capacity of the earth? It’s going to take a lot of new thinking. Einstein said that we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them. It takes a different type of thinking.”

Anderson received numerous honours for his work, including Global Green’s first Millennium Award. In 2007, Time magazine named him Hero of the Environment.

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