Confessions of a Radical Industrialist
As usual, being the environmental contradiction that I am (sigh), I drove our Jetta Diesel from Montreal and Toronto far too often this summer. If you’ve never done this drive along the 401 — well, you’re lucky. It’s possibly the most boring and monotonous 5 hours you’ll ever spend. I found that the best coping mechanism is listening to audio books to help get through the drive. I have taken the opportunity to listen to a bunch of books I want to read, but would likely take me several months to get through (ie., business books). One of the books I listened to was Confessions of a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson.
When I looked through my website to see what I’d written about Interface, it turns out not a lot. It’s possible that I overlooked it because the product (carpet tile) and company, are just so ingrained into every eco-designer’s and builder’s psyche, that I just assumed it was like writing about air — everyone knows about it, uses it already, so it would be pointless. But then I’d be wrong. As it turns out, while people inside the green building world are familiar with the company and its founder, Ray Anderson, the majority of people outside the green building world have never even heard of the company, let alone Ray Anderson.
In a nutshell, his book is a step by step guide of how one man came to the realization that not only was humankind responsible for climate change, but that his company was part of the problem. He proceeds to describe his goal for his company (complete carbon neutrality by 2020) and how they go about achieving it.
Ray’s “aha” moment came to him after reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Hawken states that not only are companies the main contributor to climate change, but they are also the means that will find solutions and adaptations to climate change. Ray got this message. Then he realized that his company, which makes nylon carpet tiles, was a significant contributor to the pollution mess we’re in. So Ray brought all of his senior executives together in a room one day and told them that he wanted Interface flooring to become a carbon neutral company, and the faster, the better. Needless to say, at first they thought he was nuts — he’d never shown any concern for the environment before. Furthermore, Interface’s product, carpet tiles, is made out of nylon, a 100% petroleum-based product. So how in the world do you become carbon neutral when your product is 100% dependent on petroleum?
It’s a question Interface has been dealing with since 1994. The company has set a carbon neutral goal for 2020. That gives them only 26 years to eliminate carbon from their manufacturing process. The company has made great strides in decreasing its carbon content while still providing a great product. Interface has tackled lowering its use of oil in its packaging, office operations, energy for machinery, transportation, etc. It is also finding ways to reduce its waste to zero (as Ray points out numerous times: “There is no ‘away'” — meaning that all waste will go somewhere, if not into new products, then it will end up in landfill and stay there). Right now the company is looking for ways to increase its recycled content and decrease its use of virgin petroleum. It even has a take-back program for old carpet tiles.
Interface FLOR carpet tiles
While Interface primarily deals with commercial and business properties, it does have a line of residential carpet (Flor) as well. If you’re in the market for new carpet, it’s worth looking into, particularly if you lean towards modern tastes.
What I really like about this book is that Ray has “seen the light”. Because he is not seen as a radical, treehugger-hippie, but rather as a businessman at the top of his company, he can direct his employees to do what it takes to decrease the company’s carbon and water footprint. And, because he is so determined to achieve carbon-neutral status, his employees bring him ideas that would be nixed before they reached senior management in most other companies. Ray gives the example of one of their factories in California. There was a proposal to put solar panels on the roof of a manufacturing building. The panels would generate a small amount of the plant’s electricity needs and cost $1.2 million. Even as I was listening, I was shaking my head thinking the cost was ridiculous vis a vis the output of electricity. But Ray told them to go ahead. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. The marketing department at Interface produced an astounding campaign around the solar panels because they ended up powering one of the carpet machines providing it with 100% renewable electricity. The product that came off that machine became a major success, more than justifying the cost of the solar panels. Huh. Who’d have thought a $1.2 million investment could have made that much of a difference. And that’s the point. Ray was a leader in every sense of the word. When he asked for something to be done it was done, even if his employees might have been skeptical at first. He was willing to take risks (sometimes they didn’t pay off, but that didn’t stop him), and he remained convinced that decreasing Interface’s carbon footprint was the best business decision he’d made. It increased the company’s efficiency, decreased its waste and water use, lowered its expenses in other areas and helped make it a leader in flooring in the commercial world.
Because Ray got it, and because he was the head of the company, the sustainable directive filtered down through the organization. If employees didn’t agree with him they would either have kept it to themselves or looked for other work. But it also allowed his organization to hire innovative thinkers and people who wanted to work for a company that was striving to make the carpeting world a better place.
However — and this is a big however — a company’s sustainability goals will not be easily achieved where the CEO doesn’t have Ray’s “aha” moment. Unfortunately most captains of industry find the task of transforming their company into “Sustainable Company 2.0” too daunting to even begin to look at and if the leaders aren’t convinced that decreasing their carbon, water and waste footprint is important, the company will never succeed in achieving sustainability. The pressure needs to come from the top.
Sadly, Ray Anderson passed away earlier this year. While his legacy and mandate continue on at Interface Flooring, his influence and sustainability leadership within the business community is greatly missed. Hopefully, other business leaders will take up his gauntlet and continue his mission towards carbon neutrality within their own companies.
For more information on Interface Flooring’s sustainability efforts, visit the website.
To see the FLOR products (residential carpet tiles), see here.