Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface Inc. and a pioneering figure of the sustainable business world, passed away on August 8, 2011 following a 20-month battle with cancer. He was 77.
Anderson’s corporate journey began in 1973, when he founded Interface to produce the first free-lay carpet tiles in America. Starting with only 15 employees (including himself), Anderson proved to be an adept businessman, guiding the company through a number of challenges and dozens of acquisitions, eventually turning Interface into the market leader in carpet tiles by the late 1980s.
His masterstroke came in 1994, however, when he made the bold decision to shift the company’s focus toward sustainability. Originally spurred by reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce—which Anderson famously described as feeling like “being hit with a spear in the chest”—he became one of the first top-level corporate executives to publicly and passionately embrace the tenets of sustainable development. Over two decades after founding Interface and at age 64, Anderson again led the company into uncharted territory. Aptly titled “Mission Zero”, his plan was both straightforward and audacious: completely eliminate the company’s negative impact on the environment by 2020.
Seventeen years later, Anderson estimated that the company is more than halfway towards his Mission Zero vision—a remarkable feat for the petroleum-intensive industry of carpet manufacturing. According to Interface, the company has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent, fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent (favoring renewable forms of energy), waste to landfill by 82 percent and water use by 82 percent.
But Anderson’s most significant legacy, beyond building a global enterprise and setting it on a sustainable course, is in the way he inspired the larger business community to do the same. In the years since his original epiphany, he has given over 1,000 speeches and written two books— 1999’s Mid-Course Correction and 2009’s Confessions of a Radical Industrialist—all of which laid a framework for a new industrial mindset. He influenced countless designers and industrialists in his decade and half as a “recovering corporate plunderer,” and remained one of the biggest proponents of the idea that preserving the earth and growing a business need not be mutually exclusive.
His full list of accolades reads like a directory of governmental, business and environmental groups. Among numerous other awards, Anderson received the inaugural Millennium Award from Global Green and won recognition from Forbes magazine and Ernst & Young, which named him Entrepreneur of the Year in 1996. He was named one of TIME magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2007, and was awarded with the American Society for Interior Designers (ASID) Design for Humanity Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from GreenLaw, and the inaugural Global Sustainability Prize from the University of Kentucky’s Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment in 2010.
Of course, for Anderson, the honors were always secondary to the primary goal of living and operating in a way that respects the environment.
“[My greatest inspiration] comes from seeing the tangible, measurable progress my company is making toward sustainability. That means to me that my vision of 10 years ago is becoming a reality, proving to anyone who cares to look that it is possible to transform a petro-intensive company such as ours and significantly reduce its environmental footprint, eventually (I am convinced) to zero,” Anderson wrote in Mid-Course Correction. “The power of example, manifest: As Amory Lovins says, ‘If it exists, it must be possible.’”
“Ray was and continues to be our company’s heart and soul,” said Dan Hendrix, president and CEO of Interface Inc. shortly after his passing. “His iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future. We will honor Ray by keeping his vision alive and the company on course.”
Perhaps the greatest evidence of Anderson’s influence can be found in the hundreds of comments—many from people who only knew Anderson through his speeches or writing—posted on http://raycandersonblog.com, a site dedicated to his memory.
“My sincere condolences to the family and friends of Ray Anderson, I am sure he will be sadly missed,” Yvette Hayes writes. “Be assured though that his reach has extended far and wide. I may not have met him, nor talked to him, but I feel that he has left an indelible mark on my heart and mind.”
Anderson's 2009 TED Talk
See Anderson's 2009 TED talk below, along with links to more articles written by and about Ray Anderson in Interiors & Sources:
Ray Anderson and Interiors & Sources
Ray Anderson has been a mainstay of Interiors & Sources’ sustainable coverage over the past decade, and for good reason. Here is a sampling of articles written by Anderson, as well as a few that discuss his impact and ideas in depth.
Every Reason for Hope (Oct 2010)
By Ray Anderson
An excerpt from his book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose: Doing Business by Respecting the Earth, in which Anderson discusses the “old, flawed view of reality,” and the changes in thinking that must take place if we are to save our planet.
Off the Grid in Lost Valley (January 2004)
By Ray Anderson
Anderson graciously detailed the process of building his own green home in the Southern Appalachian mountains for Interiors & Sources magazine.
Sustainable Design + Students (August 2004)
By Beth Harmon-Vaughan, FIIDA
Harmon-Vaughan discusses the remarks made by Ray Anderson during a keynote address at “Sustainability Day,” a one-day workshop organized by the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER).
The Power of One (ASID Update, March 2003)
By H. Don Bowden, AIA, FASID
Former ASID President H. Don Bowden discusses Anderson’s theory about “the power of one” in forwarding sustainable goals.