A new foundation to honor Ray Anderson's legacy

Last Saturday, on what would have been his 78th birthday, a small group of friends and family of the late Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface and a giant in the world of sustainable business, gathered in LaGrange, Georgia, to inaugurate a foundation in his name to "champion a revolution in sustainable production and consumption."

Anderson died of cancer on August 8, 2011, at age 77, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy as a Southern industrialist who dared to envision his carpet company as a model for the closed-loop, restorative enterprise of tomorrow.

The Ray C. Anderson Foundation, which will roll out online next week, aims "to promote a sustainable society by supporting and pioneering initiatives that harmonize society, business and the environment for the present generation and tomorrow's child," according to its mission statement. "We will achieve this mission through inspiring and funding innovative, educational and project-based initiatives that advance the revolution in sustainable production and consumption."

The foundation itself isn't entirely new. Anderson himself created it in 1989 — several years before the ephipany that would lead him to, as he later dubbed it, his "mid-course correction." At the time, the foundation was used as a vehicle for Anderson's own charitable giving, including to endow a chair at Georgia Tech, his alma mater. Over the years, it distributed midsized grants to some of Anderson's pet organizations and causes, including several sustainability-related groups, such as the Rocky Mountain Institute.

But since his passing nearly a year ago, his family, colleagues, and friends have been pondering how to infuse the foundation with new life, transforming it into a vehicle to continue the kinds of innovative efforts that were the hallmark of Anderson's life and work.

It wasn't an easy task. "He didn't give his family any kind of directions," said Jo Ann Bachman, Anderson's longtime executive assistant, now part of the foundation's staff. "He didn't give them any kind of pointers. It was just sort of 'take it and run.'"

"Daddy left absolutely no instructions," his daughter, Mary Ann Anderson Lanier, told me last week. "We were really at a loss."

In early May, a small group gathered in Georgia to begin the process, including Lanier and her sister, Harriet Anderson Langford; Anderson's wife of 27 years, Pat Anderson; Janine Benyus, the biomimicry guru; John Picard, a veteran sustainability strategist; the philanthropist Laura Seydel, Ted Turner's daughter; and Julie Wrigley, co-chair of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. They and several others began to envision the foundation's mission, vision and goals. A subsequent, larger meeting was held in June.

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