We have the choice to make. We can hurt the planet or we can help it.
That was the message Ray Anderson, chairman of carpet manufacturer Interface, kept coming back to as he addressed a crowd of almost 500 people at the Outdoor Industry Association's industry breakfast that kicked off Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006.
In a soft but compelling voice, Anderson described how he transformed his billion-dollar company into a sustainable, profitable and socially responsible corporation. Rather than crippling the company, the transformation actually saved $289 million in costs, and Anderson emphasized that any company, large or small, can follow Interface's example.
Anderson's own transformation from a self-described "plunderer" to "radical industrialist," began while reading Paul Hawken's "Ecology of Commerce."
"When I read Hawken's book, I wept," said Anderson. "I realized that I was stealing my grandchildren's future." Anderson redefined his own success to include the legacy that his company would leave behind.
"I realized that business is the only institution that can make change," said Anderson. "I realized that if we didn't become a leader no one would. I committed my company to sustainability."
Anderson said he realized that businesses can make money without harming the earth, depleting its resources or harming its people. Hawken's writings inspired Anderson to find ways for his business not only to stop destroying nature, but also to look to nature for ways to make better product. Interface product developers actually studied the structure of forest floors to create one of the company's most successful products, a carpet called Entropy.
Anderson set a goal that by 2020 the company's manufacturing processes would have virtually zero impact on the environment. So far, it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 52 percent, its fossil fuel usage by 43 percent, its water usage by 66 percent, the number of smokestacks in its factories by 40 percent, and its landfill scrap by 80 percent. In the process, Interface has saved money, made better product and even thrived while the overall market for office carpet declined 38 percent.
The company's management eventually hopes to mine landfills for recoverable resources, and Interface designers are making more pleasing and more versatile product now that they've been inspired by and started to mimic nature.
At the breakfast, Frank Hugelmeyer, OIA president, also put the challenge to be better corporate citizens to the entire outdoor industry.
"Every one of us was drawn to the outdoor industry because of our common ethics," said Hugelmeyer. "When we're asked the question â€˜what kind of a company do you want to be?' I hope that you'll think seriously about your own company and the legacy you want to leave."
Hugelmeyer urged individuals and companies within the industry to learn and share in order to do better, thanking the industry for the steps we've taken and encouraging us to go further.
For more information on Ray Anderson and Interface's change of face, read Anderson's book Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model or order Interface's sustainability report from www.interfaceinc.com.