According to his mentor Paul Hawken, it is Anderson's practicality that is his most impressive aspect. "Ray approaches things like an applications engineer. He didn't just look around, he said, 'Okay, what can we do?' and he took it step by step. Interface is in the details, at least a thousand small substantive initiatives that accumulate into a system."
What began as a response to customer inquiries has developed into a philosophy of business and indeed of economics, a philosophy that puts Anderson at odds with a lot of mainstream thought. In the Church of Capitalism, Ray Anderson manages to be both a faithful parishioner and a heretic.
If there is a single key economic concept in Anderson's thinking it is contained in the term "externalities"--all those costs of doing business that inure to society but never get charged to anyone's bottom line. If you figure in the externalities, he says, "the true cost of a barrel of oil is about $200."
In the book he published in 1999, Mid-Course Correction, Anderson takes a personal, even an impassioned view of the deceit built into the market economy: "…[T]he market, in its pricing of exchange value without regard to cost or use value, is, at the very least, opportunistic and permissive, if not dishonest. It will allow the externalization of any cost that an unwary, uncaring, or gullible public will permit to be externalized--caveat emptor in a perverse kind of way. My God! Am I a thief, too?"
"I am a recovering plunderer," Anderson says, "and an organization of more than 5,000 people, daily, is instrumental in that recovery."
There is a certain mystery about Ray Anderson's life story. When he had his environmental awakening he was already 60 years old. Lots of successful people have seen the error of their ways at that time of life, and have slipped away quietly to do good. Why did he put himself through all of this? Maybe you have to be an entrepreneur, a founder, to understand it. "Interface is my life," he remarked when asked recently about his decision. "And I think the greatest contribution I can make is to continue to lead this process that puts us at the top of the mountain. I'm always talking about climbing the mountain. Someone asked me the other day what I want to see when I get to the top. I said, I want to see hordes and hordes of people following us. This whole effort is about raising awareness."
The pure of heart tend to inspire low suspicions in the rest of us. But anyone looking for the hypocrisy of Ray Anderson has a hard time of it. He lives in a 2,400-square-foot condominium in Atlanta. "We do have a weekend house in the mountains: It's off the grid, entirely solar powered." After a lifetime of Buicks and Jaguars, he now drives a Prius. What about all the jetting around to tell people not to burn fossil fuels? Interface tries to offset the environmental cost of air travel with a program of tree-planting: some 62,000 of them so far. (The rough calculus: a tree for every 2,000 passenger air miles.)
Anderson acknowledges that he passed through a moment of doubt soon after he launched Interface in a new direction. Was he an alarmist? Do we have centuries left to behave this way? What reconfirmed his sense that he was on the right course was the concept of geological time. In his book, he cites David Brower's well-known analogy: If we compare the history of the planet to a week, then the whole of human existence is represented by six seconds, the Industrial Revolution by about a 40th of a second. Suppose the optimists are right and there are really not 50 years of oil left but 650? We still have only "a blink of God's eyes" in which to change direction.
Now Anderson has a new sense of urgency. "We don't have to think in geological time anymore. Global warming is happening so fast that it is taking scientists and everyone else by surprise. It hardly matters when the oil runs out. The oil era will end long before the end of oil. Climate change will end it." As he surveys the industrial landscape, he sees increasing signs of a revolutionary change toward sustainability. "Jeff Immelt has doubled GE's commitment to clean technologies--he's not doing it out of altruism alone. He's hearing his marketplace, just as we heard ours 12 years ago." Anderson believes even more emphatically what he wrote, with an element of hope, in his book: "There are new fortunes to be made in the next Industrial Revolution."
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