Biomimicry's Debt to Ray Anderson

In noting the passing of Ray Anderson, the New York Times called him a "Carpet Innovator." Fair enough. The son of the southern working class who gained great success by his own sweat would accept that title graciously.

But I don't.

No, "Goodwill Ambassador" is the title I would give him, and not lightly.

In those three embedded words seem to be the essence of this born-again environmentalist who changed the direction of an entire industry: the belief in doing good, the will to see it through, and the skills to convince the rest of us to follow ... or lead ourselves.

Another American, a great American, had that title starting in 1956: Louis Armstrong. He was the exemplar of courage and consummate skill and he used those traits to show us that we ought to overcome our fears and love one another.

ray andersonMr. Anderson was famous for starting many talks by having everyone in the audience hug one another. Both men fought prejudices that run deep still, in arenas not for the faint of heart.

In the case of Mr. Anderson, it was the suicidal cynicism of corporate greed and waste, and he was tireless in his cheerful railings against it. Like Mr. Armstrong, however, it was in the leading by example that he built his legacy.

Profits went up, not down, when his Interface carpet company introduced its waste-saving measures.

Clients bought more, rather than less, of the new bio-inspired tile patterns.

Employees grew prouder, rather than more sullen, as the new protocols were put into place.

One key to his sustainability campaign's success, he said in a 2007 interview, was its comprehensive, across-the-board approach to the entire company.

"If you begin with a company and say, 'We are going to green this company by bolting on these green programs,' you are going to end up with costs up, not down," Mr. Anderson said. "We stepped back and said, 'Let's look at the whole system.'"

He had, incidentally, gotten a degree in systems engineering at Georgia Tech before coming to the carpet industry, so he was ready to apply a holistic approach to the problems he saw.

By his own admission, many of his innovations were modest and incremental, but in aggregate amounted to huge savings because they were connected to a plan of whole cloth. Some were pioneering, however. Among them was a little known concept called "biomimicry" and it was first applied to product design.