Mid-Course Correction Revisited
(Originally published July/August 2019)
You always remember your first. Book, that is – you always remember your first book. You know, the first one you write. What were you thinking of?
In my case, the first book is also my only book. Whether I go on to write a hundred more or keep authorship in my rearview mirror, Mid-Course Correction Revisited will always be special to me. The reason is simple. It has everything to do with who my co-author was.
Many people just called him “Ray.” Some of his employees stuck to the habit of calling him “Mr. Anderson.” Fortune Magazine called him “America’s greenest CEO.” My mother and aunt were the only two who could call him “Dad.” I am one of five lucky souls who grew up calling him “Daddy Ray.”
His story is legendary. In 1994, in his 60th year of life and having successfully founded and grown Interface into the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet tile, Ray read a book. Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce showed Ray that his business, and all of the industrial world, were complicit in the destruction of the biosphere. Worse, business and industry were the sector responsible for the greatest amount of environmental degradation. That said, they were also the only sector large enough and well enough organized to fix our challenges.
From that moment on, Ray was committed to a new moral imperative. He sought to make his large, publicly-traded, industrial manufacturing company truly sustainable, and eventually restorative. In the years that followed, he and the people of Interface showed how much was possible when a business authentically pursues environmental sustainability.
In 1998, just a few years into Ray’s sustainability journey, he decided to write Mid-Course Correction. In part, that book looked backward, telling Ray’s personal story as an industrialist-turned-environmentalist. The heart of the book, however, was Ray’s forward-looking vision. With honest and compelling words, Ray imagined that into which he wanted Interface to mature – the prototypical company of the 21st century.
Sadly, my grandfather did not live to see Interface become a fully sustainable enterprise. He passed away in 2011, but his legacy continues on, in part through the work of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. So too does his vision, which remains just as valid and important as it ever was. We desperately need more companies to follow the Interface model, seeking to become prototypical companies of the 21st century.
For that reason, our foundation decided to update and republish Ray’s first book. His wisdom has withstood two decades of weathering, and we believe that bringing his story to the present day could inspire a new generation of business leaders. In two of the new chapters that I wrote, I explore how far Interface has come since 1998 and exactly why the company became more successful as a result of an authentic commitment to sustainability. These chapters make the business case for sustainability – what Ray called “doing well by doing good.”
From the beginning though, I knew that this book would need to be more than just a second edition trumpeting Interface’s success. For all that is the same, so much more has changed since 1998. I wanted to look around the proverbial corner, just as Ray did 21 years ago.
When I did, I realized that replicating the Interface model would not be enough to create a truly sustainable society. Don’t get me wrong – we need more prototypical companies of the 21st century. That is a necessary condition for humanity to once again live in harmony with our natural systems.
It is not a sufficient condition though. Not when our entire macroeconomic system is out of equilibrium, driven to grow endlessly while relying upon natural capital for that growth. Not with massive economic stimuli like global warming, resource scarcity, and a plateauing human population looming on the next 80-year horizon. We need more than just prototypical companies of the 21st century; we need the prototypical economy of the 21st century.
That idea might seem daunting. It’s hard enough to create just one sustainable enterprise – how much harder will it be to create a sustainable macroeconomy?! The answer may well be “orders of magnitude.” Creating it will be the principle task of this generation, and the ones to follow. Fortunately, I bring good news along with the bad.
Creating the prototypical economy of the 21st century will be worth the effort many times over. Whether we successfully decouple economic growth from natural capital or create a growth agnostic economy, we will find that this evolved system is nimbler in responding to challenges while delivering more of what we really want – better human health, more inclusive communities, and more equitable opportunities for instance. All the while, we will finally give Mother Nature a chance to rest and to heal. I can think of no more rewarding or worthwhile endeavor than that, especially when I look in the eyes of my young children and remember that they will probably be alive in the year 2100.
When I wrote Mid-Course Correction Revisited, I had two goals. The first was that I would make my family, my late grandfather in particular, proud. I think I succeeded. My second and far greater goal was to inspire others to join in this most-important of tasks – imagining and then creating the prototypical economy of the 21st century. Whether I accomplished that goal is more up to you than it is to me.
Article by John Lanier, Executive Director, Ray C. Anderson Foundation
John Anderson Lanier is Ray Anderson’s grandson and executive director the Foundation created by the Interface founder upon his death in 2011. He’s furthering the work of his pioneering grandfather by writing the rest of his story – literally and figuratively. Mid-Course Correction Revisited (Chelsea Green, May 2019) is a reissue of Ray’s 1998 book with an update on the company’s journey to sustainability, and new chapters by John that capture the lessons learned from the Interface journey and the implications for the next generation in business and industry. The book also includes a new foreword by Paul Hawken.
John currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for Southface, the southeast’s nonprofit leader in the promotion of sustainable homes, workplaces and communities through education, research, advocacy and technical assistance. Lanier was a member of the 2014 class of the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership (IGEL). He earned his Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia School of Law, and he holds Bachelor of Arts Degrees in History and Economics from the University of Virginia. He is an Atlanta native married to Chantel, and the two of them have two children, Joseph Ray (J.R.) and Cecilia.