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Ray Anderson: An Appreciation

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As I was writing this essay about Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., I looked at two photographs I had of him and his company.  The first photo shows the public Ray, stalwart as the face of the corporate giant that he built and pushed to its lofty pedestal within the sustainable flooring industry. The second photo was taken on the factory floor at Bentley Prince Street, the Los Angeles-area Interface corporation also recognized for its innovative practices. Pictured here is the code of sustainability standards by which Ray’s companies and people are expected to conduct their business.  

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These principles are bedrock mainstays of the Interface modus operandi. They are affirmations growing out of the Interface corporate commitment. If nothing else, Ray’s professional life was certainly governed by a set of well-drawn principles that embody the tenet of doing well by doing good. A southerner by birth and graciousness, Ray’s professional ethic was demonstrably not far from the fundamental Golden Rule of his upbringing.

To the world’s greater detriment, Ray Anderson died earlier this summer. Though ravaged by cancer in his last years, Ray was a very young 77. His passing marks an eerie symbolism coming at this particular moment in the history of the environmental movement. 

Ray’s primary staging ground, the green building industry, has undergone a remarkable evolution in American contemporary life, in no small measure because of him. The public awareness thermometer has moved green building from brainchild status, the curiosity of pioneering early adopters at the turn of the 21st century, to now-wider mainstream acceptance of green building concepts and applications by an intriguing mix of public and private sector interests who recognize the benefit of investing in, operating, and campaigning for greener buildings. 

Today’s economically challenged business landscape has nonetheless witnessed committed sustainability implementation both within the building industry and by the people who invest, develop, operate, and code regulate of all types of buildings. The business case has been made, often resoundingly so, despite the flurry of opposition that periodically surfaces from the muddle of retrogressive discordant voices.

Remember that famous chestnut uttered by another legendary Atlantan, Ted Turner: “I was into cable before cable was cool”? That same statement can be said about Ray Anderson and environmental advocacy.

Ray took an extremely risky position 15 years ago to become an active, practicing convert to sustainability. Nowhere is it chronicled better than through Ray’s own words in Mid-Course Correction. Ray’s early public utterances and his subsequent book must have sounded down right apocalyptic to his fellow business leaders in the mid-1990s. 

In the film “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko championed the notion that greed is good. Increasingly, today’s mantra is green is good. Author Patrick Carson amplifies that point in Green is Gold, a treatise about how businesses should work together for market transformation.

There are many other variations on this theme. Senior business leaders all over the world advocate for environmental stewardship as the norm. Often, they compete with each other to see who is more progressive. Ray Anderson’s influence is at the core of many of those discussions, just as his inspiration was earlier drawn from visionaries like Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken.

It’s become good business to be green for the past few years in the eyes of a wide variety of organizations. Bank of America has a flagship LEED platinum skyscraper in the heart of midtown Manhattan. The re-engineering of Ground Zero and much of post-Katrina New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward has come about through recognizing the benefits of sustainable design. 

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