(First published in Summer 2010) Since you’re reading the GreenMoney Journal it’s likely that you’ve already made the mental shift to sustainability, and if that’s the case, welcome! I believe that shift happens one mind at a time, one company, one technology, one university curriculum, one industry, one community at a time. Furthermore, I have never met a “former environmentalist.” It’s true! Once you understand the truth and complexity of our environmental challenges, you are forever changed. My story demonstrates that. And fortunately for us and for our planet, that collective mental shift seems to be happening quickly, particularly in the important field of green building.
I well remember the first time I spoke before the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), back in 1995 in Big Sky, Montana. I counted heads in the audience; there were just 135 people in that room. When I shared the opening plenary at the USGBC meeting in Atlanta with Paul Hawken and Janine Benyus ten years later, there were 12,000 people there! Two years after that, in Chicago, over 22,000 registered and an estimated 40,000 showed up. In business, that is a growth curve to die for. Today, USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is emerging as the global model for green building standards. It’s truly an idea whose time has come, on a global scale.
My 54 year-long working life has been spent in industry. I founded my company Interface, Inc., from absolute scratch, from just an idea 37 years ago – an idea that felt so right, so smart – to produce modular carpet in America for the emerging “Office of the Future.” Today we are a billion dollar global producer of InterfaceFLOR modular carpets and of broadloom carpets, (under the “Bentley Prince Street” brand), primarily for business and institutional interiors, as well as carpet tiles for the home, marketed under the FLOR® brand. We operate production facilities on four continents, with sales in 110 countries, and make about one-third of all the carpet tiles used on the Earth.
So I’m an industrialist, – some might even say a “radical industrialist,” a handle which gave rise to the title of the book I wrote that was published in 2009, “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist.”
You may know the story: I was convicted and transformed in 1994 by Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce” and his thesis that the largest, most pervasive, most powerful, influential and wealthy institution on Earth must lead humankind out of the environmental mess we are making. That institution is business and industry, which also is the biggest culprit in creating the mess—the precipitous decline of the biosphere. That is my institution, and carpets, generally, are petro-intensive for material and energy, contribute to global warming, and use a lot of water in their production.
Sixteen years ago, I said to a tiny, newly formed, environmental task force of Interface people, “If Hawken is right, and business and industry must lead, who will lead business and industry? Unless somebody leads, nobody will. Why not us?” So, for 16 years we at Interface have been climbing Mount Sustainability, – that point at the top symbolizing our goal: zero footprint. We call it “Mission Zero.”
We are well on our way to meeting that 2020 goal … I’ll give you a progress report before I’m done here.
Reading Hawken’s book nearly 16 years ago, I asked myself then, and I ask you now, how could a living planet – the rarest and most precious thing in the entire universe – lose its biosphere, its livability? We take it completely for granted and don’t want to believe for a second that we, i.e., our descendants, could possibly lose it.
Though clearly there’s a broad awakening under way, there’s no denying that there is also a fair amount of resistance to change. Why? Well, I think there’s more than just inertia or perverse incentives at work. Our culture is very much in the grip of some old, flawed views that stand in direct and violent contrast to sustainability, flawed views that are reflected in, and fueled by, consumerism, our insatiable infatuation with stuff.
There is the flawed view that treats the earth as though it were an infinite source of raw materials to feed our industrial system, stock our shelves, fill our houses, crowd our garages, and spill out into rented storage units, or into landfills, waterways, oceans, and the air.
There is the flawed view that adopts the annual (or quarterly) time-frame to measure the worth of an idea. There is the flawed view that forgets to ask one simple question when assessing the environmental costs of a business decision: What if everyone did it?
- What if everyone discharged untreated wastewater into the local river?
- What if everyone sent hazardous waste to be buried in the local landfill?
- What if everyone left their office lights burning, or truck engines running, or thermostats set too high or too low?
- What if everyone did it?
There is the flawed view that assumes this world is ours to conquer and rule; that we can take whatever we want from it without regard for all the other species that depend on – and compromise – nature itself, the same natural world that we depend on and are a part of, too. There is the flawed view that when accumulating all that stuff gets us into trouble, technology will see us through, even though the extractive, abusive attributes of technology – especially when coupled with numbers-driven, unemotional, results-oriented, left brain intelligence – got us into the fix to begin with.
And there is the flawed view that relies on the invisible hand of the market to be an honest broker, even though we know the market can be very dishonest. Does the price of a pack of cigarettes reflect its true cost? Not even close! How about the price tag on a lead-tainted toy from China? A box of contaminated infant formula? I don’t think so. And the price of a barrel of oil? Last time I looked, the oil companies weren’t deploying armies or naval forces to the Middle East to protect the oil fields and tankers. You and I are doing that with our taxes. Our sons and our daughters are doing it with their lives. The oil companies aren’t paying the medical bills for all those folks breathing smog, either. Nor are they building the seawalls our coastal cities will need to keep the warming, rising ocean from drowning them. Let all those be somebody else’s problem. Let our grandchildren foot that bill.
Add up all the costs the oil companies are happy to have someone else pay on their behalf, and the price of a barrel of oil – even by today’s measure – is too low by $150, and maybe $200. It is infinitely too low if you’ve lost a son, a daughter, a husband, or a wife to war.
Here’s the thing: While a few of us might enjoy the fruits of what we think is a free market, we all suffer the consequences of a rigged one, a market that is very good at setting prices, but has no concept at all of costs.
A market that’s rigged to get someone else to pay the bills whenever and wherever a gullible or unwary public allows it to happen. A system of economics that idealizes the so-called Basic Economic Problem as the driver of all economic progress. The “problem”? The gap between what we have and what we want; not need, want.
So how should we look at the world, and ourselves, from the point of view of sustainability? How do we reshape the linear take-make-waste conveyor belt we’re stuck on and bend it into a closed loop circle? I believe there is a way that unleashes a force even greater than our passion for wants, powerful enough to overcome just about any inertia. What is that force?
That force is something we used to be pretty good at—good old capitalist, enlightened self-interest. It’s irresistible magnetic force that in a free society draws innovation and capital straight to opportunity, what we might call “good greed.”
And I think it’s exactly the force that will compel business and industry to charge right to the top of Mount Sustainability.
I know we’re not going to get this job done in just a few years. I know that bringing our companies, our universities, our governments, our families, and ourselves into balance with the earth’s natural systems is a huge challenge. But the payoff is nothing short of survival—while earning a solid, honest, ethical profit. It is one of the key things we hope to accomplish at Interface: to prove this new and better business model works, to demonstrate by our own example that reaching for sustainability can lead to bigger and more legitimate profits; and by doing so, to attract other companies around the world to the model.
One result: an ever greener built environment.
The good news is that we can do it one small, smart step at a time, each one paying its own way and laying the groundwork for the next. Each step will make us a little less unsustainable, and simultaneously more profitable.
In that kickoff speech years ago, borrowing from Hawken, I said that every company has to face three ecological challenges honestly and head-on:
- What we take from the earth.
- What we make, and what collateral damage we do in the making of it (pollution of all kinds).
- What we waste along the way (in all forms), from the wellhead to the landfill.
At Interface, we began scaling what we call Mount Sustainability on seven fronts: waste, emissions, energy, material flows, transportation, culture, and the redesign of commerce. We’ve made significant progress in 16 years–progress that can be replicated by, I daresay, any industrial company on earth. Here’s our report card:
Today, we’re about 60 percent toward our “Mission Zero” goal—zero environmental footprint by 2020. Importantly, using a mix of alternative, renewable sources of energy, and other process efficiencies, we’ve cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 44 percent, leading to a 94 percent net reduction when factoring in offsets such as the use of landfill gas for process energy. We have pioneered new industrial processes that allow us to recycle both the nylon face fiber and the vinyl backing of reclaimed carpet—ours and that of other manufacturers as well. Water usage is down 83 percent.
As for costs, they’re actually down, not up. A zero-tolerance waste initiative has paid the way. Sixteen years later, we’ve reduced or avoided waste to the tune of $433 million, more than footing the bill for all the costs associated with greening our company.
We’re doing it because it is smart, and because it is right. And when we succeed, we’ll never again need another drop of oil for our petro-intensive industrial processes; and…
We’ll be doing very well by doing good.
That epitomizes my vision for Interface, and I know – just the way I knew carpet tiles were so right and so smart – that if we can get there, you can get there, too. Now, then, what if everybody did that?
Article by Ray C. Anderson, chairman and founder of Interface, Inc., and author of Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. For more information on the company go tohttp://www.interfaceglobal.com
Note to Reader: Sadly, Mr. Anderson passed away on August 8, 2011.
This Article was originally published in the GreenMoney Journal (Summer 2010 issue). The featured photo of Ray is provided courtesy of The Ray Anderson Foundation.