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Two Steps Forward

Ray Anderson: An Appreciation

What is there left to say about Ray Anderson, the iconic and iconoclastic industrialist, who just passed away at age 77 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer?

What is there left to say about Ray Anderson, the iconic and iconoclastic industrialist, who passed away today at age 77 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer? Over the past two decades, he has been deservedly celebrated and awarded like almost no one else in the world of green business.

Anderson, you likely know, was founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., the Georgia-based carpet maker that has set what may well be the highwater sustainability benchmark of any industrial company. That benchmark was Anderson’s doing, way back in the early 1990s, when he experienced the “spear in the chest” epiphany that would launch the thousand or more speeches he would subsequently make around the world, along with writing two inspiring books.

I first met Anderson in 1994, not long after Anderson encountered Paul Hawken, whose book The Ecology of Commerce inspired him to recognize that he was, by Anderson’s own reckoning, “a plunderer of the Earth,” an unusual and refreshing admission for any CEO. I had the pleasure of interviewing Anderson or sharing the podium with him on several occasions, and considered him a friend. (Here's the link to a longish 2004 interview I did with Anderson on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his epiphany.)

Countless tributes will be made by his many friends and admirers in the coming days and weeks. He will be lionized for his vision, inspiration, humanity, generosity and grace, among many other admirable traits that characterized him. Over the years, I met more than a few individuals (some were competitors) who grumbled that Anderson had stolen the limelight from other business leaders who were demonstrating their own brand of environmental leadership. But none of them — and no one — questioned Anderson's sincerity or commitment or passion, to his company as well as to the ideal of a sustainable world.

Anderson finished most of his speeches with a poem written by an Interface employee who was inspired after hearing Anderson describe his environmental vision. I’ll reprint it here. (You can see Anderson read it himself, at TED.) It’s an inspiring piece. That Anderson made it his signature speaks volumes about this Southern industrialist, a businessman thoroughly committed to all that sustainability stands for.

Tomorrow’s Child
Without a name, an unseen face
and knowing not your time nor place
Tomorrow’s Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.

A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his sobering point of view
I saw a day that you would see,
a day for you, but not for me.

Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you.

Tomorrow’s Child, my daughter-son
I’m afraid I’ve just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.

Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander, what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.

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