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11 November 2015

Leadership, Sustainability & Visibility

bowlerI'm very proud to be working on a project with the world leaders on corporate sustainability, Interface. The results of this work will be made public next year, but it is very clear from my many interactions with Interface employees and stakeholders that Ray Anderson, the founder of the company and its Mission Zero sustainability programme, is still held in highest regard some four years after his death.

I follow a couple of twitter feeds who supply inspiring business and management quotes (I like a good quote, even if many are misattributed) and one caught my eye this morning:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves ~ Lao Tzu

Now I know I'm walking on thin ice criticising the (purported) author of the Tao Te Ching, but is this always the case?

On one level I understand the need to get individuals to claim ownership of sustainability issues, solve them and take credit for the results. But 'barely know he exists'? We look to our leaders to show us the direction of travel, for permission to act and for permission to fail. Otherwise every organisation could run itself.

I certainly don't think Interface could have gone through the radical transformation it has over the last two decades without Ray Anderson nailing his colours to the mast. And where Interface has led, competitors and other industries have followed. Visible leadership matters in sustainability.


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9 August 2011

A Tribute To Ray Anderson

It was with great sadness that I saw the news that Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface, had died yesterday. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr Anderson, and only heard him speak once at an Interface event. But I recommend his book, Confessions of A Radical Industrialist to every other person I meet, included an interview with one of his senior European directors in The Green Executive, and included Mr Anderson as the only industrialist (so far) on Green Gurus where I concluded:

Ray Anderson is in many ways an unlikely green guru. An industrialist, a Southern Gentleman, self deprecating and almost impossibly polite, he is as far from a tree-hugging tub thumper as you could imagine. But nobody else has delivered green business improvements on this scale. He has taken the theories of gurus like Amory Lovins and Janine Benyus and demonstrated that if done correctly they do make good business sense. By transforming an archetypal ‘dirty’ industry such as floor coverings, he has demolished the excuses from other sectors that it can’t be done. And he is committed to spreading the world, reportedly delivering around 150 speeches and interviews a year. When it comes to industry, Ray Anderson is the green guru.

I don't have many heroes, but Ray Anderson was one of them. One of a kind and an inspiration. I'll end with his words:

“If we can do it, anyone can. If anyone can, everyone can.”

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6 April 2010

Book Review: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson

This book seemed to take an age to get published in the UK, and I had it on pre-order as soon as I knew it was coming as, in terms of green business leadership, Ray Anderson is the Guv'nor. His company, Interface, is the least likely champion of green business that you could imagine - they are the world's biggest manufacturer of carpet tiles, made from oil-based chemicals using huge amounts of energy and producing tonnes of toxic waste - if they can do it, anyone can.

Anderson first wrote a book, Mid-Course Correction, in 1998 describing his decision to turn Interface into a sustainable company back in 1994 and this book, he says, is an update of that journey from the point of view of ten years later. The title of the first book comes from Anderson's epiphany on a flight reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. He had been given the book after struggling with the question "What is Interface doing about the environment?".

The answer was the radical Mission Zero - the like of which I have seen nowhere else - to have a zero ecological footprint by 2020. Yes, zero. In order to achieve this, Interface developed the idea of "Mount Sustainability" which has seven faces - all of which have to be climbed:

1. Zero waste
2. Eliminating emissions and effluent
3. Renewable energy
4. Recycled or renewable materials
5. Making transport resource efficient
6. Sensitizing stakeholders
7. Redesigning commerce

There are too many examples of how they have progressed on these faces to list here, but here are a couple of my favourites:

• turning the perceived cost of installing solar energy in one factory - enough to cover the whole supply chain's carbon emissions - into a business opportunity. The result: a new product, Solar-Made carpet, which has won huge public sector contracts.
• developing a new carpet fixing tape, inspired by the tiny hairs that allow geckos' feet to cling to any surface, to eliminate the need for glue and make the carpet easier to recover.
• using landfill gas to heat one of their factories and cut methane emissions
• the "entropy" carpet tile, again inspired by nature - this time leaves on a forest floor, which can be laid in any direction.

Interface isn't afraid to fail either. Their much talked about "Evergreen" carpet leasing service (part of face 7) was a marketplace failure - mainly because their customer's financial systems and the US tax system couldn't cope with carpet being a revenue item rather than a capital item.

If I have to criticise anything about the book, it is that the writing itself is a bit clunky in places and threads sometimes get lost. For example, in the chapter "One small digression and six lessons" I could only count two lessons, and the biographical nature of the first few chapters suddenly disappears until the end, giving a slightly uneven tone. A very minor criticism, but a bit more polish would make the message so much more compelling.

But in summary, Interface is my No 1 green business and this book goes a long way to explaining how Anderson and his team did it - so, buy it, read it, buy a copy for your colleagues!

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12 June 2009

Ray Anderson, Interface

Interface is one of the world's leaders in green business in the rather unsexy field of carpet - they also happen to be the biggest producer of modular carpet in the world. CEO Ray Anderson is not the greatest public speaker in the world, but his message is compelling.

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