Ray Anderson is more than just the founder and chairman of the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpeting, he’s also the grandfather of corporate sustainability. In 1995, Anderson embarked on a mission to remove Interface Inc.’s impact on the Earth completely. Below, we talk to the carpet mogul about his new book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, and explore the story behind his quest for sustainability.

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What was the inspiration for your book? The inspiration behind the whole initiative came out of a question from our customers–what’s your company doing for the environment? We set about to get some answers. This led me to Paul Hawkins’ book Ecology of Commerce. I read it, and it was a spear in the chest, an eye-opening , earth-shaking, life-changing experience. We decided for ourselves to take from the earth only what the earth could rapidly renew. Along the way I’ve made nearly 1400 speeches telling the Interface story. Out of those stories, I developed the substance for two books, including Confessions for a Radical Industrialist.

What are some of the things you’ve done to make Interface completely cradle to cradle? Well, we don’t use the term cradle to cradle, but that’s another story. The company is my third child after my two natural daughters. Twenty one years into the company’s existence, the question [of sustainability] came. I spent a year or two creating a plan, a mountain of sustainability, a mountain like Everest but much much harder to climb. Waste is the first face of the mountain that we tackled. Over the years we’ve saved over 400 million in waste avoidance, which has paid for all the rest of the mountain climb. The second face of the mountain is emissions. We have to make to sure whatever we emit is harmless to the environment, which means we have to work upstream with suppliers. So that’s a demanding thing to work with an entire supply chain to make sure everything that comes into our factory has been screened. The third face is energy, to make sure factories operate on 100% renewable energy. We have to concentrate on energy efficiencies first, and then harness renewable energy. The fourth face is one of material flows, and developing technology to give products a life after life. That’s our term instead of cradle to cradle. A baby can die in the cradle. The fifth face is transportation, to move people and products in efficient and non-polluting ways. The sixth face is sensitizing all of our stakeholders, shifting the mindset to understand the demands of sustainability in its harshest and most rigorous terms. The seventh face, which still looms in the future…we think it will be possible to change the way we go to market. Instead of selling carpets, we will sell the service a carpet delivers, including color, texture, ambiance, acoustical value, and design, all while retaining ownership of the tangible stuff, and keeping that stuff going in closed loops. The top of the mountain, if you can visualize Everest, symbolizes zero environmental impact. That’s the plan that we developed in about 1995, it’s the plan I published in Mid-Course Correction, and it is still the plan. In the new book, I devote a chapter to each of the seven faces of the mountain. The book itself is maybe the first how-to book in existence for this. How do you take an industrial company from the 20th century and transform it into the prototypical sustainable company of the 21st century?

How far up the mountain are you? It’s a good question and it requires elaboration on the metrics. Because what gets measured gets managed. Water usage is down 74%, greenhouse gas emissions are down 71% in absolute tonnage. Given the growth in sales that translates into an 82% reduction in greenhouse gas intensity. Fossil fuel energy is down 60%, total energy is down 44% per unit of production, or 191 million passenger miles in planted trees. The transportation of our own fleet is climate neutral (offset with verifiable offsets), we shut down a third of our smokestacks and 70% of our effluent pipes, and waste to landfills is down by 80%. The goal for all of those is zero, 100% reduction. 35% of our raw materials today are coming from recycled content (from competitors and non-carpet products), and 30% of our energy is from renewable sources. All of that together says we’re about 60%, maybe a bit further up the mountain. If you visualize the mountain, we started at the base, going to the peak by the year 2020.

Who are some of your mentors in the business world? I had mentors growing up. I worked for some really smart people who inspired me, I had football coaches who taught me to compete. My inspiration goes way back. Today, it’s hard to look around and find role models for what we’re trying to do. I think I’m more likely to become the role model. That’s not intended in an arrogant way, it’s just that the industrial system is so antiquated in spite of the wonderful modern products that you see all around you, they’re still being made in the same way things were made 300 years ago.

Are there specific companies in other industries that you’ve helped? I hate to name names but I think it’s public knowledge that we’ve helped Wal-Mart. When Wal-Mart was thinking about doing [their Sustainability Index], Mike Duke invited me to come out and help him launch it. Wal-Mart sent teams of people to our factory in LaGrange, Georgia to see sustainability in action, to see that it was feasible. I think we asked Wal-Mart to get over the hump of asking if this is something they could ask their suppliers to take on. I’m told all the time that we’ve influenced companies all over the place, but I seldom get people calling up and saying thank you. But that’s OK as long as the ball is moving forward. We’ve got so long to go.

+ Interface Inc.

+ Confessions of a Radical Industrialist