“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.

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