Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist

The Ecology of Commerce Revised Edition: A Declaration of SustainabilityIn 1994 Ray Anderson, a captain of industry, founder and CEO of the large and successful carpet tile company Interface, was indicted as a plunderer of the earth.  At least that’s how he describes what happened when he took up Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and read it overnight. It marked a turning-point for his petroleum-intensive company which set out on a journey towards a zero environmental footprint, with 2020 as the deadline. The story to date is told in his new book Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist. I’d seen reference elsewhere to the fresh path the company had taken, and turned to the book with some interest but not expecting the intellectual rigour and full environmental awareness that I encountered, expressed in engaging and energetic prose. It’s a notable book which well deserves wide attention.

The company began with this exacting goal of sustainability which was to inform their journey:

“To operate this petroleum-intensive business in a manner that takes from the earth only that which is naturally and rapidly renewable – not one fresh drop of oil – and to do no harm to the biosphere.”

Taking-making-wasting is the linear process which describes much of our industry and which Interface is set on changing. Anderson uses the metaphor of mountain climbing, up the seven faces of Mount Sustainability. The first face is zero waste. Tracking down and eliminating waste has incidentally proved highly profitable. Anderson describes it as “the engine that will pull the whole train”. The sentence that stood out for me in this chapter was the addition they made in 1998 to their definition: “All fossil fuel use will be counted as waste to be eliminated.”  That’s setting the bar high, but it’s an example of the seriousness of the whole project.

The second face is eliminating or rendering benign the emissions from smokestacks and effluent pipes. Greenhouse gases, waste water, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds are among the targets here. The third face is energy efficiency and the introduction of renewable energy, “plugging into the sun” as Anderson describes it in his eloquent advocacy of the solar revolution.  Embrace the future, he says, or be left behind.

Face four is the fascinating climb to carpet recycling, the story of how the company worked its way through to recycling not only the carpet backing but also, thanks to partnership with Italian technology, the nylon yarn. “No old carpet need ever again go to a landfill.” Face five deals with the problem of transportation in all its ramifications, more than would have occurred to me but all carefully explored and much improved as a result. Face six addresses social sustainability, from the human relationships within the company to the company’s wider relationship with its communities.

The final face is nothing less than the redesign of commerce. A rather difficult task in a society which disguises, through its economic distortions, the true costs of its “producing, delivering and discarding”.  Interface’s efforts to replace exploitation of nature with recycling and respect for limits may seem like a drop in the ocean, but their direction is surely the only hopeful one. Natural processes feature frequently throughout the book. An interesting section on bio-mimicry describes how the ‘organised chaos’ of nature has been copied  in the design of carpet tiles and in addition to its pleasing aesthetics has brought advantages for laying and repairing. The uncosted exploitation of nature is ultimately disastrous. “Nature is the infrastructure that undergirds civilisation itself.”

The thoroughness with which the changes needed in the ascent to sustainability are examined within the company is very impressive. There is no skating over the surface of any investigation, no pretending or ignoring. The practices of suppliers as well as of the firm itself are brought into account. The honesty seems impeccable. I found myself admiring not only the care taken but also the willing allocation of the company’s resources that must have been required to draw up such detailed accounts. It’s still a work in progress, and they are by no means sure that they can reach their target, but what they have achieved to date is no mean feat: greenhouse gas emissions cut by 71 percent (partly  with verifiable offsets) in spite of a 60 percent rise in sales; renewable energy use up from 0 percent to 28 percent; the energy content of their carpet down by 44 percent; water intake per production unit reduced by 75 percent; landfill scrap reduced by 78 percent; recycled and biobased materials in manufacture worldwide increased from 0.5 percent to 24 percent and increasing rapidly.

Done right, sustainability doesn’t cost. It pays.

Throughout the book Anderson is at pains to point out that Interface has prospered as it has engaged with its ongoing transformation. Based on the experiences of his company since 1994 he offers a promise: “Done right, sustainability doesn’t cost. It pays.” When the CEO of a stable industrial company declared that he intended to eliminate his company’s environmental footprint and become sustainable, and then restorative, he raised plenty of questions in business circles. But he insists he remained a capitalist with a sharp eye to the profits of his company, profits which only increased as sustainability improved. I often found myself thinking of the painful contrast with those perverse business lobbies and their compliant politicians who, on cue, immediately trumpet disaster to the economy from any requirements for more sustainable business practice.

Anderson has a high view of business and industry as the only institution “large enough, wealthy enough, pervasive and powerful enough” to lead mankind out of the environmental trouble we are in. Government can’t do it. But the essential function for government in the process is setting the goals and writing the rules in such a way as to keep the market honest. That must include accounting for the so-called externalities deceptively omitted from costs. He shows no sympathy for the notion of an unfettered market.

He doesn’t consider that a book on sustainable business can omit special mention of global climate disruption. The chapter he devotes to the subject is a model exposition of the broad outlines of climate change as understood by climate science. He writes of a very real and present crisis. The fatal message of the deniers must be ignored. Challenging nature in her domain, which is what we are doing, puts us in great peril. The necessary call to action has been muffled, but he considers that an awakening is taking place. One can only hope he’s right in discerning this.

I warmed to the obvious social concern shown in the book. Anderson’s vision of a sustainable society includes the imperative to lift the poorest out of poverty, and he welcomes the increased employment opportunities which will accompany a more careful stewardship of the world’s resources. His vision is not just technological, but ethical and humane.

Anderson’s book is the story of his own company. But it’s also a prefiguring of the industry and commerce and social interaction of future society if we can persuade ourselves away from the self-destructive path we are currently on. That’s still a very big “if” and for those hypnotised by it Anderson’s story is valuable evidence that the step to sustainability is not only necessary but also eminently possible.

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