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!