Monthly Archives: August 2011

“Mount Sustainability” the dream of a green giant

The news was really awful today. Actually I don’t mean the utterly predictable tea party-engendered catastrophe on Wall Street. Nor do I mean the rioting that began three nights ago in London and spread today to Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. Not even the slaughter taking place in Syria. Although I easily could mean any or all of the above.

My last post was about the upcoming loss of a childhood hero. This one is about a loss for us all; a man who became a hero to many involved in sustainability, and especially those of us priviliged to have met him and heard him speak.

It’s been dubbed the passing of a ‘green giant.’ Most of you won’t recognize the name Ray C. Anderson even though he owned the world’s most successful  floor covering company. Although you’ve most likely never heard of Interface, you’ve almost certainly walked on their carpets or flooring in offices and stores, no matter where in the world you live.

I met Ray Anderson when he keynoted a sustainability meeting in Seattle that I co-organized. I had already been inspired by his personal story of change, delightfully told in his punchy little book “Mid-Course Correction.”

Georgia born and raised, he exuded Southern charm, wit, and intelligence. He also knew something most of us didn’t bother to think about. Petro-chemical based, carpets accounted for the largest single product in the land-fills of the world. In 1994, while preparing to defend his multi-billion dollar company’s environmental policies, he read Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce and eloquently described his epiphany as “a spear through his chest” when he realized that he was “one of the bad guys.”

From that moment on he dedicated himself and his company to the climb up what he dubbed “Mount Sustainability.”  Labeling it a myth that business cannot do well and do good, his goal was nothing short of zero waste, zero eco-footprint. At the time of his death today, he was 9 years from the target date of 2020.

From the forward to the 2010 update to his book, Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist he wrote this about getting off oil:

“Distancing ourselves from the wellhead requires that we reimagine the antiquated, linear, take- make- waste industrial system of which we are all a part. And instead, to become part of a thoughtful, cooperative, cyclical system that mimics nature in the way that we design, source, manufacture, sell, install— and eventually reclaim and recycle— our products.”

Sounds lofty, but that’s what he was working on. Interface’s eco-metrics are already astounding. They range from simple offsets — such as  200 million airline passenger miles offset by some 106,000 trees to the vastly more complex 80 percent reduction in both water intake and landfill waste per unit of production. This in one of the most intensely petro-chemical products in a span of 13 years beginning in 1996.

Ray summed it up with his typical eloquent yet universal simplicity:  “If we can do it, anybody can. If anybody can, everybody can. That includes you.”

It would be absurd to attempt to sum up his contributions in a blog; still I can’t resist pointing out that beyond the incredible power of his example during his lifetime, he leaves even more than the legacy of those accomplishments.

He leaves literally thousands of hard-working devotees in and outside of Interface so inspired by his life, passion and mission, that no obstacle could possibly be large enough to stop them meeting that deadline now, and zeroing out atop Mount Sustainability.


Carpe Diem Right Now!

Life has a way of showing us up sometimes. I mean, we want to think we’re in control at least a little bit and some of the time. Then suddenly we are reaching out to things that are simply beyond our grasp, and all we can do is watch — like old people getting senile, not eating, wanting to die and not dying. Like family members doing that. Like my favorite elder doing that.

And here’s the real kicker. She now exemplifies everything she never, ever was.

My aunt was a childhood hero of mine because she was so damn stubbornly independent. She grabbed life and shook it until it gave her what she wanted. No matter her mother died way too early, leaving her motherless at 12 and that her father put her in an orphanage some months later. He was known around town as  ‘Cauliflower Joe’ from his favorite scam of taking his carriage around, hawking beautiful cauliflowers with only the top ones good. He was a short con artist with no room in his life for a daughter.

It didn’t bother her though. She said she preferred the orphanage. But even today, she talks lovingly of her mother and seems to miss her, though she’s been dead for longer than most people get to be alive. 81 years ago. My aunt is 93 now.

She started her own business, went on the world’s longest railway trip — the trans Siberian Express, took trips to Korea, China, Europe, Mexico and others. She took a 3-month world cruise sans husband. They often took ‘separate vacations.’ When she was ready, she sold her business for a tidy sum and retired to Florida. She hated it there. She said It’s like an old people’s home, there’s no kids. So at age 69 she picked up, visited Costa Rica and a week later bought a house there. That was 24 years ago. It’s where she’ll die, probably in the pretty near future. She married and divorced five times, once to a mafioso who was stupid enough to try to go for her money. He lost. Let’s just say he lost big time, and leave it at that.

Avid bridge player, winner of tounaments. Avid theater goer, she turned part of her home into a small theater for the English-speaking community. Self-educated, voracious reader, she played a killer game of Trivia and Scrabble. When I visited her last time she had a thick book near her bed — NYT Sunday crosswords. Most of them done.

All her friends and most of her loved ones are gone. As is her hearing and her ability to get out of bed and take care of herself. Her time is over. And she is ready, very ready. In fact, as in her many years of active life, she’s kind of pushing the envelope.

It’s okay. She had a Life. She didn’t wait for anybody or anything. Within the law, she made her own laws. She reigned. She rocked.

I’ll miss her. I already do.