In the summer of 1994, carpet-tile mogul Ray C. Anderson made a sobering discovery: Although his billion-dollar business was the biggest of its kind in the world, everything about it was wrong.
That realization came after reading "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken, the sustainability guru who founded the Smith & Hawken gardening stores. The book led Anderson to reexamine his business model through the lens of environmentalism.
His Georgia-based company, Interface, made carpet tiles from petroleum products. The nylon in the carpets came from oil. The electricity that ran its plants came from fossil fuels. The finished tiles were transported on diesel-powered trucks. The entire enterprise, he would later say, was so oil-dependent that "you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry."
What he had failed to see were his company's harmful by-products — pollution and waste, including millions of tons of used carpeting that would clog landfills for thousands of years.
"It was an epiphanic spear in my heart, a life-changing moment," he recalled in a 2006 interview with the Guardian of London. "I realized I was a plunderer and it was not a legacy I wanted to leave behind."
Anderson, 77, who died of cancer Aug. 8 in Atlanta, turned himself into the leading champion of sustainability in corporate America. "When it came to bending industrial processes to making peace with the planet, Ray Anderson was the greatest of them," Ralph Nader said in a statement last week.
Describing the challenge as "a climb up Mount Sustainability," Anderson proved that going green was good for the balance sheet as well as for the planet.
Since adopting Anderson's vision of sustainable business, the company has reported substantial decreases in greenhouse gas production, fossil fuel consumption, water usage and landfill waste while doubling its earnings.
"Almost every major corporation has a sustainability team … but there is no corporate leader out there like Ray who is willing to bet their company that this is the right thing to do," said leading green architect Bob Fox, who advises Harvard University's Center for Health and the Global Environment. "In 1994 Ray bet his company … and it worked out extremely well for the bottom line."
Anderson became an evangelist for green business, influencing practices at large and small companies, including mammoth Wal-Mart, said John Picard, a California-based green building consultant. "Ray got people to take risks," Picard said.
An outwardly traditional man who spoke in a gentle Georgia drawl, Anderson seemed an unlikely convert to the movement.
"He was this ex-Georgia Tech businessman," Hawken recalled in an interview Friday, "but what came out of him was very, very radical. Like Nixon going to China, I guess."
Born on July 28, 1934, in West Point, Ga., Anderson grew up in modest circumstances as the son of a schoolteacher and an assistant postmaster. He played football at Georgia Tech, graduating with honors in 1956 with a degree in industrial engineering.
He spent the next 17 years climbing the corporate ladder in the carpet industry. When he was passed over for a promotion at Callaway Mills, he began thinking about starting his own business. In 1973 he founded Interface to produce carpet tiles, a British innovation that transformed the commercial carpet business in the United States. Over the next two decades Interface became a highly profitable global enterprise.
In 1994, a recession-driven management overhaul was causing Anderson, then 60, to contemplate his future role in the company. "Should I just cut loose or help it find a new mission?" he said in the Guardian interview.
Coincidentally, he was asked to address a conservation task force that had formed in response to insistent inquiries from Picard. "What are you guys doing for the environment?" Picard had been asking company officials.
Anderson was reluctant to speak to the team about his vision because, he later acknowledged, "There was no vision."
Then a copy of Hawken's book landed on his desk. The "spear in the heart" came after the first 20 pages, in a chapter on the ways American industry's "take, make, waste" model has harmed wildlife.
Galvanized by what he had read, Anderson gave an impassioned speech about sustainability and restoring the Earth that riled the task force.
"His words sparked tears, anger, defensiveness and fierce intellectual challenge," Jim Hartzfeld, who led the task force, recalled in a company blog post last week. Some of the members suggested that the Interface chairman had "gone 'round the bend" but Anderson held his ground and eventually persuaded the entire staff that he was right.
In 1997, at a conference of 1,100 Interface sales representatives from around the world, he further defined the vision.
"If we're successful, we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yester-year's carpets and other petrochemically-derived products and recycling them into new materials, and converting sunlight into energy, with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. We'll be doing well … by doing good."
He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Patricia Adams Anderson; two daughters, a brother, a stepson, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.