The Weekend Wonk: Brought to Life by a Spear in the Chest

August 12, 2011

Ray Anderson has died. NYTimes:

Ray C. Anderson was chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest carpet-tile manufacturer when he read a book that described people like him as thieves and plunderers of the planet. He saw the author’s point. He even wept. Then he set out to change things.

Mr. Anderson, an avowed “recovering plunderer” who re-invented his worldwide factory operation to reduce its environmental impact and became one of the nation’s most effective corporate advocates for environmental sustainability, died on Tuesday at his home in Atlanta. He was 77. His family said the cause was cancer.

Starting in the early 1970s, Mr. Anderson built a company based in Atlanta, Interface Inc., into a $1.1 billion a year concern manufacturing carpet, fabric and upholstery used in offices and commercial buildings.

(buy your Interface sustainable carpet here, at flor.com)

Those efforts drew praise from environmental organizations and earned him an appointment to a White House environmental commission under President Bill Clinton.

They also helped his company’s bottom line. “What started out as the right thing to do quickly became the smart thing,” he told a business group in Toronto in 2005. “Cost savings from eliminating waste alone have been $262 million.”

In his speeches, Mr. Anderson credited that book, “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken, with changing his perspective. He described reading it as a “spear in the chest experience.”

“I read on and was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment, and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment — the industrial system of which I and my ‘successful’ company were an integral part,” he said in a 2005 speech.

“A new definition of success burst into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept.”

Efforts he began have so far reduced the so-called carbon footprint of the company’s 26 factories by about half, said the current chief executive, Dan Hendrix.

Longer lecture at UCLA below:

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