Almost 14 years ago, Ray Anderson picked up a book that would change his life and lead him not only to transform his company, but to influence his industry and the modern system of commerce. Then 60, Anderson headed a carpet company that was "successful by any standard definition of success," he told his University of Richmond audience. But as he thumbed through Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, a chapter title leaped out at him and he began to read "The Death of Birth."

Having no idea who Hawken was or of the meaning of some terms he used, such as "overshoot," Anderson read an account of the destruction of habitat on St. Matthew Island after humans tinkered with the reindeer population. The difference between reindeer and human habitats, Hawken wrote of the incident, "is that the resources used by the reindeer...eventually return, whereas many of the resources we [human beings] are exploiting will not."

With growing dread Anderson read as Hawken drove home his point that humankind is in overshoot. "I was dumbfounded," said Anderson, "by how much I didn't know about the environment and the impact of the industrial system on the environment."

The realization that he and his successful company had played an integral part in the earth's devastation was, he said, "a spear in the chest...I was a plunderer of earth, stealing my grandchildren's future...I wept as I read." The book inspired Anderson to form a task force and make fundamental changes in Interface, Inc., which he has vowed to transform into a zero-footprint company by 2020. Now a "recovering plunderer," he lives by a new definition of success: building a socially responsible corporate legacy.

Since 1994, his company has reduced net greenhouse gas emissions by 88 percent and water usage by 79 percent while growing in size. Interface's overall ecological footprint has been reduced by roughly half, as the company has pursued initiatives to emulate nature in its process, eliminate waste streams and smoke stacks, emphasize renewable energy, harness sunlight and wind, and use climate-neutral transportation to move its people and products. "It's fair to say," noted Anderson, "that we're a restorative company, even though we're only halfway there."

Interface has also attempted to cut its material "umbilical cord" to earth by shifting to carbohydrate polymers instead of petrochemicals in its carpet-making. Anderson called the shift "dust to dust with a biotech wrinkle," while admitting that the substitution of corn dextrose is at best a transitional technology. "Ideally," he said with a smile, "we'd like to harvest kudzu."

Perhaps most importantly, the company has prompted a culture shift - not simply changing mindsets within the organization, but also among suppliers, customers, and even competitors. Anderson has formed a consultancy group to enable other companies to shorten their learning curve when it comes to sustainable practices.

"Sustainability has taken root in the very DNA of Interface," said Anderson. "Our people are galvanized around a higher purpose. You cannot beat it for bringing people together." What's more, he said, his company is putting out a better product and costs are down, "exposing the false choice between economics and environment." The company's transformation has generated good will in the marketplace that Anderson believes no amount of advertising could have produced.

As he recapped milestones in the environmental movement and traced the development of environmental ethics, Anderson reserved his highest praise for a "brilliant, brave woman named Rachel Carson," and her crusade to heighten awareness of the earth's fragile interdependent web.

"Most people would say her book [Silent Spring] launched a movement," he explained. "Another way to think about it is that Rachel Carson extended the field of ethics beyond people and land to include all the creatures...She was the quintessential wielder of the power of one."

But despite the "Rachel Carson shock wave" and resulting legislation, relatively little has been accomplished, Anderson continued. The rate of abuse has slowed, but overall global environmental trends are still moving in the wrong direction. "Our diversity is plummeting - the death of birth. The human footprint is growing; the planet's carrying capacity is not. In fact, it's shrinking."

Asking the audience, "How could a living planet lose its biosphere?" he suggested that the process is an insidious one. One polluted brook at a time, one acidified lake at a time. One overfertilized farm, one eroded ton of topsoil, one developed wetland at a time. One corrupt politician at a time. One new open pit coal mine in a pristine valley at a time..."One lost habitat, one disappearing rain forest, one depleted or polluted aquifer, one toxic release, one unremediated brownfield, one political payoff, one one-tenth of a degree of global warming at a time. One poorly designed carpet, one insensitive or uninformed architect or interior designer or factory manager or manufacturer or developer or builder at a time.

"One songbird, one PCP-laced orca, one whale, one dolphin, one polar bear, one leatherback turtle, one entire wild species at a time."

Anderson maintains that the decline will not stop until humans come to their senses. "If we do come to our senses in time," he said, "it will happen one changed mind at a time...All industries have got to make this transition, undergo this transformation, participate in this new industrial revolution, to survive. Those who don't, won't."

March 5, 2008 The Jepson School of Leadership Studies