Ray Anderson, Interface Chairman and Sustainability Leader, Dies at 77

by | Aug 9, 2011

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Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, Inc. and a widely recognized leader in sustainable business, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.

Anderson was one of the most vocal proponents of environmentalism’s role in business. He founded Interface, a producer of free-lay carpet tiles, in 1973, and it grew to be a $1 billion company and the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet.

Anderson set a seemingly radical goal for the firm: “Mission Zero,” a commitment to eliminate any environmental impacts by the year 2020. Shortly before his death, he estimated that the company was more than halfway towards this vision. Interface says that in the past 17 years, it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent, fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent, waste to landfill by 82 percent and water use by 82 percent, while avoiding over $450 million in costs, increasing sales by 63 percent and more than doubling earnings.

Anderson transferred day-to-day running of the company to Dan Hendrix in 2001 and spent the next ten years as non-executive chairman. In that time he became well-known as a champion of the business case for sustainability, with over 1,000 speeches to his name. He wrote two books on the topic: Mid-Course Correction (1998) and Confessions Of A Radical Industrialist (2009).  The latter was recently released in paperback as Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.

In 2008 Anderson co-chaired the Presidential Climate Action Plan for the Obama administration, and in the Clinton administration he served as co-chair of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. Anderson was crowned Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 1996 and was named one of TIME magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2007.

He was a commentator on the Sundance Channel series “Big Ideas for a Small Planet”, and shortly before he died also began writing a popular column for Environmental Leader.

“The industrial system takes too much, extracting and frittering away Earth’s natural capital on wants, not needs,” he wrote.  “It wastes too much.  It abuses too much.  It takes stuff and makes stuff that very quickly ends up in landfills or incinerators—more waste, more abuse, more pollution…

“I believe that a sustainable society depends totally and absolutely on a new mind-set to deeply embrace ethical values.  Values that, along with an enlightened self-interest, drive us to make new and better decisions.

“I also believe that it doesn’t happen quickly … it happens one mind at a time, one organization at a time, one building, one company, one community, one region, one new, clean technology, one industry, one supply chain at a time … until the entire industrial system has been transformed into a sustainable system, existing ethically in balance with Earth’s natural systems, upon which every living thing is utterly dependent.”

Anderson was a 1956 honors graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, which last Friday awarded him with an honorary doctorate – his twelfth. Together, he and Interface funded the creation of the Anderson-Interface Chair in Natural Systems at Georgia Tech.

“Not only did Interface and the world lose a great man today, but I lost a friend and mentor,” said Hendrix, Interface’s president and chief executive officer. “Ray’s iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future.”

Anderson is survived by his wife, Pat Anderson, and by his family: daughter Mary Anne Lanier and her husband Jaime of Marietta, Ga.; daughter Harriett Langford and her husband Phil of LaGrange, Ga., and stepson Brian Rainey and his wife Flor of Atlanta, Ga.  Grandchildren include Jay and Whitney Lanier of Asheville, NC, John Lanier and Patrick Lanier of Marietta, Ga., Melissa and Kalin Heflin, McCall Langford, and great-granddaughter Bailey Heflin, all of LaGrange, Ga; and by his brother, Dr. William Anderson of Conneaut, Ohio.

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