Exit Interview: Paul Murray, Shaw Industries
Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling veteran sustainability executives as they leave their jobs and companies.
Paul Murray stepped down Friday from his role as vice president of sustainability and environmental affairs at Shaw Industries, a Berkshire Hathaway company. It was the culmination of 30 years working in sustainability in the furniture and floorcovering industries, the first 22 at Herman Miller. Both companies have been on the leading edge of sustainable materials, designs and supply chains.
I recently spoke with Murray about his career and his insights into making change happen. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Joel Makower: How did you find your way to sustainability 30 years ago?
Paul Murray: I came home from work one day — I was working as a research chemist — and I gave my son a hug. He went into anaphylactic shock because he was allergic to something in my clothing. So, for the next seven or eight years, I would have to shower before I went home and leave my clothes and wash them separately from my family clothes, because we never really, totally identified what that was.
It made me start worrying about what would happen to the environment if I was already polluting my family’s home. When I joined Herman Miller in 1988, I started an environmental program. And since 1988, I’ve been fully engaged with sustainability in one shape, form or another.
Makower: Herman Miller was one of the early adapters in terms of thinking about the sustainability of its products, the ingredients, the sourcing of wood and other materials. How did that come about?
Murray: At the time, we had what was called "design for the environment." It came from this initial environmental team we had put together, and it was just a general concern: How were we building our products? Were we using the right chemicals? Were we making them so that they could be recycled? In fact, the Aeron chair was actually designed with environment characteristics.
In the late 1990s, Bill McDonough approached Herman Miller and said, "I think we can do more. Let’s change the way you design all your products and look at the chemistry of it down to the molecular level."
And so, Herman Miller was one of the first companies to really look at what we now term "material health."
Makower: So, in 2011, after 22 years at Herman Miller, you found your way to Shaw. What did you see there that was tempting?
Murray: Well, I joked that it was in the South; I no longer had to put up with snow in the winter. But in reality, what drove me is that I saw a company with the great social ethics that I’d enjoyed at Herman Miller.
And my team at Herman Miller was ready. I’d been doing and working in the same field for 20-plus years with the same company; it was a time for change for me, too. And it was exciting at age 56 to join a company that had another stellar ethical background.
Makower: Was Shaw already working with McDonough by the time you showed up?
Murray: Yes. Bill came into Shaw before I ever got here. He continues to work very closely with Shaw. In fact, he has actually designed carpet styles for us.
Makower: The Cradle to Cradle certification has been a pretty slow build. It seems to be getting some new lift out of the attention being paid to a circular economy. What have you learned along the way about how you propagate a framework like that in the marketplace?
Murray: That we have to have the market pull before it really gains momentum. Initially, in the first seven or eight years, it was just four or five large companies that were driving Cradle to Cradle and talking to the customers about it.
It moved to a new level when the U.S. Green Building Council started saying, "You know what? We really need to understand this thing called material health." They put material health into the LEED standard. And they gave Cradle to Cradle, because of its methodology the opportunity to contribute two points to the standard. Now, all of a sudden, the customers have become really engaged and start pulling it. So, that’s one thing that I really think helps drive the understanding of Cradle to Cradle.
Makower: One of the interesting things you did at Shaw was to engage your suppliers to sign the U.N. Global Compact. Why did you do that?
Murray: We created some 2030 goals seven years ago. After seven years, we took a deep breath and said, "It’s time to step back and make sure that we’re going in the right direction."The triple-bottom-line plus innovation. That’s a great company strategy.
We were thinking that we would create a new strategy. But the company already has a strategy that basically is the triple bottom line. We’ll protect natural resources, make sure we take care of the company profit, make sure we take care of people, and then use those to drive innovation throughout the company. So, the triple-bottom-line plus innovation. That’s a great company strategy.
We also have the vision coming from our CEO that he shared with our owner, Berkshire Hathaway, that we’re going to create a better future. So, if you have a vision that you’re going to create a better future and a strategy that’s triple bottom line, we didn’t really need a new strategy. What we needed is: How do you create a better future in the tactics of the company?
And so, this matrix that we have is something we can share with our employees. We took it to the what we call the boardroom, which is the senior executive leadership team — the CEO and his direct reports. They looked at this body of work, which was almost a year in the making, and in the first meeting they approved it.
Makower: Where does the Global Compact fit in?
Murray: There’s something in the people side where we say, "We will respect human rights throughout our organization." We also have a sourcing strategy that says we’ll partner with key suppliers to drive safe ingredient chemistry. So, how can we create something that will start driving this through that sourcing strategy and the respect for human rights?
We saw the U.N. Global Compact fitting that bill. My partner in the sourcing group, Diana Rosenberger, wrote a white paper we could give to the senior team and say, "Here’s what our customers are thinking about the U.N. Global Compact. Here’s what our suppliers are thinking about it." It was easy for us to sign the U.N. Global Compact, because we were already doing it. We were doing ethical business.
What sourcing did was to say, "We’d like to put this into the terms and conditions of all of our contracts." And the senior team went, "There’s no reason not to do that. We expect our suppliers to work in the same ethical arena that we do."
And so, every new contract has the expectation that you are abiding by the U.N. Global Compact. It will be a condition of being one of our suppliers. And we really have had no pushback at this point. Our suppliers are going, "Yep." And they’re signing on. So, that’s kind of cool.
Makower: So, you’re retiring from Shaw. Are you also retiring from sustainability?
Murray: I don’t think anybody ever bitten by the bug of sustainability retires totally, Joel. So, no. I do plan on retiring to a city with an airport, as my wife puts it, probably in a warmer climate, and continuing the journey somehow — consulting or working for another company. The world probably hasn’t seen the last of me. At the same time, it’s been a fun, fun journey here at Shaw and I’m going to miss all the people and the company itself.