ATLANTA—Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface and environmental pioneer, lost his 20-month battle against cancer here Aug. 8. He was 77.
An honors graduate of Georgia Tech’s school of industrial and systems engineering in 1956, Anderson founded Interface in 1973 to produce the first free-lay carpet tiles in America. Interface, is now the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet tile, which it markets under the InterfaceFLOR, FLOR, Heuga and Bentley Prince Street brands.
Reading Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce” in 1994, which detailed how civilization could destroy itself through overuse of natural resources, changed the course of the company for Anderson. In what he called a “spear in the chest moment,” Anderson put Inter- face on a course to make the company a carbon neutral company by 2020, epitomized by the organization’s journey—Mission Zero—up Mount Sustainability.
He described his sustainable vision for Interface: “If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yester- year’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sun- light into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well, very well…by doing good. That’s the vision.”
Seventeen years later, the company has made significant progress toward that vision by reducing fossil fuel consumption by 60% and total energy use by 44%; curbing greenhouse gases by 82%; reducing water use by 73%, and decreasing waste going to landfills by 67%. These measures grew revenue by 66% and since 2003, Interface has made 83 million square yards of carpet with zero environmental impact linked to its production.
Carpet & Rug Institute president Werner Braun remembered him fondly. “Anderson was a true visionary who worked tirelessly in his efforts to champion the carpet industry for its sustainability efforts. He was a leader at the highest level in making the industry one of the most sustainable in the world. Ray’s contributions in making the carpet industry a leader in that field will be felt for many generations to come and he will be missed by all of us fortunate enough to have crossed his path in life.”
Anderson transitioned from day-to-day management of the company in 2001 when Dan Hendrix became CEO, and spent the next 10 years as non- executive chairman, focusing his time and energy on the business case for sustainability, delivering more than 1,000 speeches and authoring several books on the topic.
“Not only did Interface and the world lose a great man, but I lost a friend and mentor,” Hendrix said. “Ray’s iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future.”
In addition to a host of honors and acknowledgements from environmental organizations both inside and outside the flooring industry—including Time Magazine’s Hero of the Environment; U.S. News & World Report’s Greenest CEO in America, and one of FCNews’ 25 Difference Makers—Anderson was awarded 12 honorary doctorates for his work, including one from his alma mater, Georgia Tech. On Aug. 5, at the 240th commencement celebration, Anderson was awarded the honorary degree for his work to secure a greener world for future generations and his championing of the business case for sustainability. He joined the ranks of Georgia Tech recipients like former president and Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter, astronaut John Young, civil rights leader Ivan Allen Jr., micro-chip inventor Jack Kilby, and former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole.
Though Anderson was unable to attend the ceremonies due to illness, he penned an acceptance speech, which was read by Mary Anne Lanier from the Interface Environmental Foundation.
“To be acknowledged with this award from my alma mater is a special honor. I hope that in accepting this we place another spotlight on our company’s efforts to eliminate negative impact on the environment. We refer to this as Mission Zero. And we hope it inspires the future business leaders in the audience of 900 graduates to carry this message with them into the companies they will work for tomorrow and well into the future.”
Anderson’s message reached large and small screens as well, appearing in the 2004 Canadian documentary, “The Corporation” and the 2007 film by Leonardo DiCaprio, “The 11th Hour.” He also served as co- chair of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development during President Clinton’s administration, which led to co-chairing the Presidential Climate Action Plan in 2008, a team that presented the Obama Administration with a 100-day action plan on climate change.
Anderson is survived by his wife, Pat; his daughter Mary Anne Lanier and her husband Jaime of Marietta, Ga.; daughter Harriett Langford and her husband Phil of LaGrange, Ga.; stepson Brian Rainey and his wife Flor of Atlanta. Grandchildren include Jay and Whitney Lanier of Asheville, N.C., John Lanier and Patrick Lanier of Marietta, Ga., Melissa and Kalin Heflin, McCall Langford, and great-granddaughter Bailey Heflin, all of LaGrange, Ga., and his brother, Dr. William Anderson of Conneaut, Ohio.