Everyone, it seems, has a Ray Anderson story. Everyone, it seems, has interviewed, worked with, or otherwise engaged with him. And everyone, it seems, concurs that we won't likely see his kind pass our way anytime soon.
The outpouring of sentiment following the passing this week of Interface Inc. founder and chairman Anderson has been noteworthy in large part to the sustainability thought leaders that are taking the time to mark his legacy. I've been watching and reading these past 48 hours, and it's been impressive. Suffice to say, it is hard to imagine the CEO of any other industrial company receiving such tributes from the sustainability crowd. That, as much as anything, reflects Anderson's legacy.
Here is a sampling:
He realized his firm had been rather wastefully turning oil into five billion pounds of carpet that, after brief use, went to landfill to rot for millennia. Ray set out to fix that and to reconcile what he did at work with what he taught in Sunday school about stewarding Creation.
It is significant that Ray spoke of the heart. He wasn't solely driven by the business case -- he saw sustainability as a matter of morality, too. He referred to himself as a "recovering plunderer," because he believed that any company that takes more from the planet than it gives back is involved in plunder. As he told a TED conference in 2009, "Theft is a crime. And the theft of our children's future [will] someday be considered a crime." As to the future, he forecast that "a new generation of CEOs will emerge.
Perhaps what made Ray's leadership so important and so effective was the way he has completely negated the argument that environmental sustainability can only be had at the expense of economic prosperity. Interface's remarkable success -- and the positive business impact that has come as a result of its reputation as a sustainability pioneer -- stands as a strong example that without a strong triple bottom line, you're never truly successful.
I was fortunate to meet Ray in 1996, when he was the keynote at the USGBC's conference in Bozeman, Montana at the Big Sky resort. Later I learned that this was Ray's first green speech; his coming out as a corporate chieftain environmentalist -- the first that any of us had seen. Imagine the CEO of a billion dollar company announcing his intention of pushing his industrial machine to scale what he called "Mount Sustainability" fifteen years ago. Ray looked corporate, and had the credentials, but he stood apart. He was a man of great vision, incredible passion, tenacity, vigor and continuing growth. Even though he had no need, he extensively travelled the world telling his green story, sounding almost like a preacher despite his CEO title. With each speech he advanced the sustainability message and increased his company's performance goals, while informing standing ovation audiences of the metrics of tons of carbon dioxide and toxins avoided, and energy, water and waste saved from Interface's journey of going up the mountain.
Ray started every talk by getting the audience to hug. I loved that, and as with many things with Ray, took it as inspiration that a corporate CEO was getting everyone to hug. And his Southern way: he was saying we need to connect and love one another if we are going to turn things around.
Historians will report that in the late 20th century the world and its business giants began a slow, sometimes painful, pivot away from traditional industrial capitalism to something different...something healthier, more passion-driven, and, yes, more profitable. When they write about this period, a few names and moments will be pivotal. Ray's conversion and evangelism will be at the center of that history.