"We Will Win, and Earth Will Win!"

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Dispatches, February 1999


"We Will Win, and Earth Will Win!"
And other emissions from America's greenest CEO

By Erik Stokstad

When Ray Anderson threw a 24th birthday bash for his billion-dollar carpet-manufacturing company, Interface, hundreds of sales reps from around the world converged on Maui's Grand Wailea Hotel anticipating a week of wall-to-wall rug talk. Instead, they landed in an ecological love-fest. After a chorus of children warbled "We are the World," Anderson's minions heard how pollution, overpopulation, and rampant consumerism are destroying the planet, and then were urged to conserve resources during their stay. With his trademark zeal, Anderson, 64, now looks back on the April 1997 event as a kind of corporate emotional watershed. "People came away," he says, "believing they have the power to get us off the path to ecological collapse toward which we're hurtling like a runaway freight train."

Anderson's commitment to so-called industrial ecology is already well-known, thanks to his appetite for endless crusading: The CEO has been featured on CNN and NPR's Talk of the Nation, and he gave more than 100 speeches last year. Next month, he will attempt to spread his gospel even further with his new self-published autobiography, Mid-Course Correction. Such exposure, when combined with the economic muscle of Interface — a company that makes about 40 percent of the world's carpet tiles — gives him unusual clout in American business culture. "People tend to listen to him," says Nadav Malin, editor of Environmental Building News, "in a way that they may not to the Sierra Club."

A self-described "plunderer of the earth," Anderson has done an awful lot of despoiling (Interface's 26 factories spewed more than 57,000 tons of air pollutants in 1996). Such statistics have weighed heavily on him ever since he underwent his oft-recounted epiphany during the summer of 1994, after thumbing through The Ecology of Commerce, an environmental call-to-arms by Paul Hawken. Galvanized by its passages on species extinction and destruction of the rain forests, Anderson drafted a new vision for his company that emphasized slashing waste, conserving energy, and cutting pollution. "If we don't live sustainably," he explains, "we won't live at all, and business will be incidental."

True, but not exactly breaking news. Many U.S. corporations have been adopting such notions ever since the EPA started requiring them to inventory their toxic emissions in 1986. Interface's determination to implement these concepts, however, is unique. Within the past year, the company has begun spinning nylon from recycled soda bottles at its fabric mill in Maine, while a weaving plant in California has cut nitric oxide emissions by 98 percent and converted one of its looms to solar power. To the delight of stockholders, Interface has saved $67 million over the last four years through waste reduction, and its stock price has doubled over the same period (although much of this increase stems from rising demand for office carpeting in the United States). Anderson, meanwhile, has been peddling his message around the world through a series of motivational speeches with titles like "The Eco-Odyssey of a CEO" (he likes to address audiences as "fellow astronauts on Spaceship Earth").

Unfortunately, such rhetoric tends to gloss over financial realities that have stymied some of his greenest projects. Case in point: An innovative Interface plan to rent rather than sell its textiles to clients — and thereby recycle the product — has yet to get off the ground. As Nadav Malin notes, "It's still cheaper to buy the carpet and throw it away." Nevertheless, Anderson insists that if his corporate colleagues would only follow his lead, "We will win, and Earth will win!" Corny as this may sound, it has a certain ring of truth. At the company powwow in Maui, his employees figured out how to cut the hotel's water and propane consumption in half. Interface, Anderson is pleased to note, later won a million-dollar carpet contract from the resort.

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