Remembering Ray Anderson, a Trail Blazer in Corporate Sustainability

America lost a great visionary on Tuesday when Ray Anderson passed away. Long before green campaigns and sustainability programs became standard features in corporate America, Ray put his reputation and his company’s financial future on the line to prove that businesses could generate growth and restore the environment at the same time.

Thanks to Ray’s initiative, Interface, his global carpet manufacturing business—a traditionally petroleum-intensive industry—slashed its fossil fuel and water use by more than half. His example has inspired countless other executives to embrace sustainable practices.

In his soft Georgia accent and understated manner, Ray liked to refer to himself as “a recovering plunderer.”

He founded Interface in 1973, building it into a hugely successful enterprise. Then, in the summer of 1994, he read Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce and was forever changed. He realized that industrialists like him had been fouling the environment for decades with their “take, make, and waste” model of production. But he also realized that we couldn’t restore the planet without the help of industry.

Ray set out to create an alternative approach to manufacturing. He made a public pledge to something he named Mission Zero—a plan for eradicating Interface’s impact on the environment. Then he and his colleagues began inventing the industrial processes that would allow the company to manufacture a good product in a greener way.

Since then Interface’s has cut is fossil fuel usage by 60 and its water usage by 70 percent. The company gets nearly 30 percent of its electricity from renewable power and has succeeded in diverting 74,000 tons of used carpet from landfills.

A moral imperative seemed to fuel Ray’s work. He once told a Fortune Magazine writer that someday industrialists who disregarded the Earth as he used to would be put in jail. Later, in the 2004 documentary “The Corporation,” he explained why: “Theft is a crime and the theft of our children’s future will someday be a crime.”

Ray’s passion and proven track record made him a powerful spokesman. I will never forget seeing him transfix 800 people in a barn on Wes Jackson’s farm in Kansas. At the same time, he caught the ear of corporate titans and political leaders.

I first met Ray when he co-chaired President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, on which NRDC Founder John Adams also served. Ray’s success as a businessman and an environmental steward gave him the credibility to make the business case for sustainability and to dispel the myth that America had to choose between the environment and the economy.

Ray often quoted his friend Amory Lovins, who said, “If something exists, it must be possible.” Then Ray would add, “If a petro-intensive company can do it, anybody can. And if anybody can, it follows that everybody can.”

Thanks to Ray, we now know what is possible.