Ray Anderson set out to make his business sustainable long before green was the flavor of the month. Reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce in 1994 literally changed his life, inspiring him to overhaul his carpet company, Interface, and aim for zero waste and zero environmental impact. Now, with his new book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, he wants to spur other business leaders to “climb Mount Sustainability.”
Anderson recently dropped by the Grist office and we asked him how his own ascent is going so far.
Q. You’ve been working for the last 15 years to make your company sustainable. What do you know that other companies need to know?
A. Well, it’s hard. It’s the work of a lifetime. It takes an awful lot of patience and stick-to-itiveness.
We’re 15 years into a 26-year journey-that’s how long we calculate it will take us to get to a zero footprint, taking nothing from the earth that’s not naturally, rampantly renewable and doing no harm to the biosphere.
Q. How long did it take your company to recoup the investment that you initially made?
A. No time. From day one, we were ahead of the game. Tackling waste-that’s where the low-hanging fruit is. We declared war on waste: only zero is acceptable. Doing everything right the first time, every time, including making no scrap and no off-quality. When we measured ourselves against that kind of perfection, we found 10 percent of the sales dollar going down the drain as waste, most of it considered allowable, expected.
Fifteen years later, we’re only halfway there. But we’ve saved over $400 million, which has more than financed everything else that we’ve done-the R&D, the capital expenditures, the process changes, employee training, the whole ball of wax.