Ray Anderson stood behind the podium wearing a jacket and tie and looking a little out of place. Not that he was uncomfortable – far from it. It was just that he was apparently indifferent to the standard Outdoor Retailer dress code. Or perhaps, as the person sitting next to me suggested, he just hadn’t gotten the memo. Outdoor Retailer isn’t typically a jacket and tie kind of venue. Mostly you see a lot of snappy-looking people clad in bright, stretchy stuff hinting that somewhere deep inside they’ve probably got a couple of wild hairs.
And as if to heighten the sense of dissonance between himself and the large group of people he was addressing, Mr. Anderson opened his talk by flatly stating, “I am an industrialist.” Not just some petty ironmonger either – the man is founder and CEO of Interface, a huge and growing floor covering manufacturer. And just to make sure we were all on the same page, he added that the floor covering industry has historically been a notoriously noxious and wasteful business. For something like four decades Ray Anderson was a part of that history, a self-described plunderer.
So what was a guy like this doing up in front of a fairly large gathering of outdoor enthusiasts – a crowd of people who presumably care a lot about the natural world he’d spent half a lifetime pillaging? The answer has to do with the other half of his life – the half he’s inhabiting right now, doing gleeful and potent penance for the sins of his past. He was addressing us because his penance involves an outrageously ambitious attempt to revolutionize not just his own company, but the entire industrial culture in which it is embedded as well. Anderson stood before us at the invitation of the Outdoor Industry Association because he had a story to tell. It was a story of the epiphany that led him to make wildly unconventional choices about future shape of his life’s work.
Ray Anderson can tell you to the day when the lightning bolt hit. He can tell you the precise source of his insight, and he has monitored the impact that insight has had, both on his own life, and on the life of his company. As Mr. Anderson tells it, he was reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce one day when he realized that the way he had been doing business, although completely legal, was manifestly wrong. It was wrong because it was wasteful, harmful and unsustainable. He was a plunderer. He came to the conclusion that he’d been stealing from his grandchildren, and it was not the kind of legacy he wanted to leave. He decided to do something about it. He vowed to move beyond basic compliance with the law and committed his company to sustainability. Anderson said that it became clear to him that somebody simply had to make this move, and he found himself wondering, “why not us?”
The rest is not so much history, as history in the making. Interface’s progress toward sustainability over the last ten years has been a jaw-dropping success. Anderson reported greenhouse gases down 52%, the use of non-renewables down 43%, effluents down 53%, landfill waste down 80%, and a whopping $289 million in cost avoidance through waste reduction. He is quick to point out that they have a long way to go, but he has not wavered in his commitment to reaching his target of zero impact by 2020. Mr. Anderson said that this approach has required him to embrace the notion that, “we are our entire supply chain.” He has reorganized his company around taking responsibility for the damage that it does and insisting on a ferocious commitment to transforming the practices that contribute to that damage.
What makes this story particularly uplifting is the not too familiar feeling that one of the good guys has been rewarded for making difficult choices. At Interface, costs are down as a result of changed practices, products are the best they’ve ever been, people in the company are galvanized around a higher purpose and the company has reaped enormous good will in the marketplace.
Since 1994 when the lightning bolt hit, Anderson has been relentlessly crusading to change the way people think about their responsibility to the world they live in, by both example and exhortation. Listening to him speak on Saturday morning, it became clear that he’s gotten very good at it. He closed his talk by reading a poem called Tomorrow’s Child, and as he finished reading, the entire audience of outdoor industry professionals responded with an immediate standing ovation.
And this, of course, is where things start to get a little uncomfortable. For so many of us in the outdoor industry Ray Anderson’s message, and his example, are enormously compelling – moving even. And that’s exactly as it should be. But I’d be surprised if I was the only one in the audience feeling the slightly bitter tang of irony as I stood there clapping. At the front of the room, was a man in a coat and tie telling the assembled climbers, backpackers, paddlers and skiers that his decision to transform a large industrial company was fundamentally the result of the realization that it was simply and manifestly the right thing to do.
Mr. Anderson did not make his case for sustainability on aesthetic grounds, he didn’t explore with us the spiritual implications of how we respond to this set of challenges, and he didn’t mention the potential for human transformation that wild places represent. He didn’t describe what it feels like to stand in a river, get lost in the desert, drop into a couloir, or even just walk off into unknown country. Whether or not Mr. Anderson knows anything about these things I couldn’t tell you, but I know for a fact that many of us do.
For a significant number of people in the outdoor industry, our debt of gratitude and sense of responsibility to the natural world stem not just from the realization that our grandchildren are heirs to the what we leave them, but also from the very personal and specific set of experiences around which we have attempted to build our lives. If any segment of the business world has a heightened obligation to move aggressively toward sustainability, it seems we should be prime candidates. Upon hearing Ray Anderson’s talk, and recognizing once again that somebody has to make this move, it’s pretty hard to avoid the obvious question: why not us?