Should Business Have a Conscience?

Should Business Have a Conscience?

[Editor's note: This column from Ray Anderson marks the paperback release of his book, "Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist." The book was published in 2009 in hardcover under the title "Confessions of a Radical Industrialist."]

What CEO expects to stand before her or his Maker someday and talk about shareholder value? It may sound like C-suite heresy but in 1994, when I was at the top of my game as CEO of a global, $1 billion company, I had an epiphany that changed how I saw the world and how my company -- and I -- would leave it, and it left me cold. 

For now, let’s call it a nagging sense of legacy, the thing that must have been in the back of my mind back in 1994 when I read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, seeking inspiration for a speech to a task force that was organizing to answer customer concerns about what our carpet company was doing for the environment. Hawken’s central point was that the very institutions that are degrading our environment -- business and industry -- are also the only ones powerful and pervasive enough to right the damage. That Hawken was right -- and that I and my company were among the guilty -- hit me like a spear in the chest.

That realization led me down a road I never imagined for myself or my petroleum-intensive company.  Distancing ourselves from the wellhead requires that we re-imagine our antiquated, linear, take-make-waste industrial enterprise to instead be a part of a thoughtful, cooperative, cyclical system that mimics nature in the way that we source, design, manufacture, sell, install and eventually -- reclaim -- our products. It requires new technology, new inputs, new thinking. It is intensely complicated, and at the same time, completely liberating, to think outside the box and beyond the traditional confines of design and manufacturing. And somewhere along the way, the idea that what we are doing is so right -- so right, and so smart -- emerges to propel us forward. It is working -- our products are better than ever, our employees are more engaged than before, customers are extraordinarily loyal and importantly -- costs are down, not up, dispelling the myth that sustainability is expensive.

So what about that nagging sense that must have been at the back of my mind back in 1994? Ego says it was legacy, but let’s assume that it was actually conscience -- the thing that inherently knows right from wrong. Right now we humans are burning up something like a cubic mile of oil each year, as well as mountains of coal, to power our homes, our cars, our offices, and our factories, fuels that took millions upon millions of years to create -- and only a few hundred to exhaust.  Inherently, we must know that this is wrong -- and stupid. A wise farmer would shake his head and say we were eating our own seed corn. A capitalist would say we can’t afford to do it differently.

But what if that capitalist took into account the value of the services that nature provides? What if the balance sheet required that we account for air; water purification and distribution (the hydrologic cycle); soil creation and maintenance, thus food; energy; raw materials; climate regulation; pollination; seed dispersal; nutrient cycling; an ultraviolet radiation shield; flood and insect control; and net primary production, the product of photosynthesis? Surely, the capitalist will know that without any of these, there would be no economy.

At Interface, the pursuit of sustainability has opened our eyes, not only to the enormous opportunity that new thinking provides, but also to how wrong we had it before.

If we intend to go on, if we aspire to thrive in a carbon-constrained world, and to put down multiple threats -- global climate disruption, species extinction, resource depletion, and environmental degradation -- we need a new way, a better way. Wrong thinking got us in to this mess. Eating our own seed corn, as it were, is unsustainable.

The capitalist would say, "Business can’t afford to have a conscience."  But I am here to tell you, the farmer was right, and business can’t afford not to have a conscience.