His company, Interface, makes carpet tiles - carpet you lay down in squares. In 21 years Anderson built up a business with 26 factories in six countries, customers in 110 countries, 5,800 employees and nearly a billion dollars in annual sales. Everything was rosy, until his research director asked him to address a staff meeting with an environmental vision for the company. "I sweated for three weeks over what I would say to that group," says Anderson. Just then, someone sent him Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce. In it Anderson found his vision and his spear.
Hawken's book opens with a description of the night he stood up to receive an award for his own company's environmental excellence. Looking at the impact of his business on the Earth, Hawken realized that he deserved no such award - and no company did.
The book goes on to list the many ways in which the human economy violates the laws of the planet. We mobilize an increasing amount of stuff from the Earth's crust and spit it out as waste. We pour poisons into our own life-support systems. We draw down an unreplenished supply of fossil fuels and in the process derange the atmosphere.
Anderson, an engineer from Georgia Tech, got the message. His carpet tiles are nylon and polyvinyl chloride, made from oil through polluting processes. They last forever in landfills. His business is not an asset to the planet, and it's not sustainable.
That was the spear through the heart.
But Hawken's message is not a doomsday cry; it's a challenge. "Industry, the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on Earth, must take the lead in saving the Earth from man-made collapse," he says.
Anderson went right to work on that challenge. First came the speech to his staff. He said his vision was "to make Interface the first name in industrial ecology, worldwide, through substance, not words. To convert Interface into a restorative enterprise - putting back more than we take from the Earth. To achieve sustainability and then to help others achieve sustainability, even our competitors."
Anderson says the speech "surprised me, stunned them, and galvanized us into action." Two years later, Interface is proceeding to clean up its act with hundreds of projects along seven broad fronts.
One front is to run the company on benign energy sources so "we never have to take another drop of oil from the ground." That means renewable energy, and before that, radical energy efficiency "so we can afford the investment in alternative sources." Interface is working with Rocky Mountain Institute, Georgia Tech and Georgia Power to figure out how to do it.
Another front is zero waste. Anderson's engineers found 25 different waste streams coming out of one factory and calculated that eliminating them could save $70 million in disposal costs. So far, by source reduction and recycling, they have captured $20 million of that - which is paying for much of the rest of the effort.
Closed-loop recycling is another goal. Early on, Anderson's team came up with the idea of leasing carpet instead of selling it. Customers will not buy a carpet, they'll rent one. Interface will own it, maintain it, take it back when its useful life is over and recycle it into new carpet. "Nylon molecules are very precious," says Anderson. "We want to spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets and recycling them, with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem - and run the whole thing on sunlight."
That's both a financial and a technical challenge. Banks are having a hard time with the concept of a perpetual lease. And the process of separating carpet from backing and reclaiming both works only in the lab so far. Anderson is asking his suppliers - the biggest chemical companies in the world - to help him pull this one off.
Some of his business friends think he's crazy. They've been giving him books that counter Hawken and other environmentalists, books that say forget it, this doomsday stuff is hype, there's no problem. Anderson has read them soberly and considered the odds. He calls one side of the argument "alarmist" and the other "foot draggers."
"The alarmist perceives the Earth to be in crisis, sees our actions as totally inadequate, and predicts the outcome to be collapse. The foot dragger perceives things as not so bad, even getting better, sees our actions as good enough, maybe too good - meaning expensive and misguided - and sees the outcome as an abundant future for all. Here's the paradox: The surest way to realize the alarmists' outcome, collapse, is to accept the foot draggers' view. The surest way to realize the foot draggers' outcome, abundance, is to believe the alarmists' view that we are in trouble and have to change."
So he's changing. The amazing thing you discover when you meet Ray Anderson is that he is having a blast. He and his colleagues are thrilled by the vision, excited by the challenge.
"We are all part of the continuum of humanity and life," Anderson said in a recent speech to other corporate CEOs. "We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum and the Earth that sustains all life. It's that simple. Which will it be?"