In many ways, Ray Anderson is an unlikely environmental advocate. The 74-year-old chief executive officer has spent most of his life building up the world's largest carpet tile manufacturing business, relying on a range of petrochemical-based materials to feed his factories and build his products.
Then, sometime in the 1990s, Anderson did something that some might call imprudent, even suicidal he went green and he took his company with him.
Since 1996, Atlanta-based Interface Inc. has been climbing what Anderson calls the ``sustainability mountain'' with the goal to become a zero-impact operation by the year 2020. The decision came to change the company's ways after customer inquiries made it up the chain of command from the sales floor what was Interface's environmental profile?
``That piece of business was slipping away,'' said Anderson, speaking at the Shanghai British Chamber of Commerce Corporate Responsibility Conference on Sept. 10. ``Our customers care, so we have to care.''
While Anderson was initially mystified by customer concerns, he soon became an environmental advocate in his own right. After reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, Anderson had a realization. ``I am convicted as a plunderer of this earth,'' he said. He threw himself into the company's environmental overhaul.
The company laid out a game plan in 1996 consisting of seven different phases, the first of which was the not-so-simple task of eliminating waste. ``This required a revolutionary redesign of our processes,'' Anderson said. ``We have eliminated costs every step of the way.''
The second step, according to Anderson, was to eliminate the manufacturing operation's emissions. Today, Interface has reduced its smokestack emissions by half and its effluent pipe emissions by 81 percent. The third phase of the plan focused on energy efficiency and utilizing renewable energy; the fourth phase is closing the loop on material flow.
In the fifth phase, Interface moved to offset or eliminate emissions related to transportation. In the sixth, Interface addressed the culture of its own company, getting every employee to buy into the environmental game plan.
The seventh phase of the plan is one that will depend heavily on the success of the first six, Anderson said. ``We need to redesign commerce itself,'' he said. Customers should value the service that Interface's products provide, not the product itself, he said. ``We need to create a service-oriented, resource-efficient and cyclical market.''
Anderson is quickly approaching many of his goals. The company has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 82 percent. It has planted 87,000 trees to help offset emissions and 88 percent of the company's energy consumption comes from renewable energy sources.
One of the biggest challenges, however, has been in the materials Interface uses, like finding technology to recycle nylon fibers.
To reduce the amount of fossil fuels the company uses in its materials, Interface has started incorporating polylactic acid and recycled materials into its carpets. It also sells carpet tiles with a high amount of recycled content. One of the company's product lines, Sabi, boasts 51 percent recycled content. Another, Terratex, is 100 percent recycled or renewable fibers.
The continuing focus on sustainability has encouraged Interface's employees to think outside the box, Anderson said, finding solutions to problems that seemed insurmountable.
``The focus of [research and development] on sustainability produces unimagined innovation,'' he said. It also has helped save the company money. In waste reduction alone, Interface saved $372 million.
The sustainability program also has helped to attract new customers. ``The goodwill of the marketplace has been astounding,'' Anderson said. ``No amount of advertising could have brought us this much goodwill.''
Moving forward, he hopes that other companies will follow suit. If a company in a petrochemical-dependent field can do it, he argued, everybody can. As awareness of the environment grows among customers, Anderson thinks that it will be companies that do not act and adopt new policies that will be left behind.
``I have never known a more powerful differentiator than sustainability,'' he said.