A Sustainable Legacy: How the Ray C. Anderson Foundation Builds Circular Economy Opportunities

If successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear’s carpets, recycling old petrochemicals into new materials, and converting sunlight into energy.  There will be zero scrap going into landfills and zero emissions into the biosphere.  Literally, our company will grow by cleaning up the world, not by polluting or degrading it.  We’ll be doing well by doing good.  That’s the vision.”
- Ray C. Anderson

Ray Anderson was a man of great vision.  It was his vision, a firmly held belief that carpet tile would revolutionize the floor covering industry, that led him to found Interface, Inc. in 1973.  It was his vision that guided Interface’s growth, leading it to become a Fortune 500 company and the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet.

John Lanier, Executive Director, Ray C. Anderson Foundation, will give a keynote address at the 2015 Sustainability Forum May 6-7 in Washington D.C. Register here!

It was once again his vision that spurred Interface to take on its greatest challenge yet: to eliminate any negative impact it has on the environment by 2020, which the company calls Mission Zero®.

I believe that when a visionary passes away, his or her vision becomes known by another word: legacy.  As Ray’s grandson and the Executive Director of the Foundation that bears his name, I strive to advance that legacy along with the rest of his family.  We are grantmakers, supporting innovative initiatives that advance environmental sustainability.  Our primary partners are some of the most effective environmental nonprofits and higher education institutions in the world.  That said, we remain true to Ray’s fundamental belief that business and industry is the sector that must take the lead in creating a more sustainable world.

How might a business accomplish that?  For Interface, Ray believed that it required a simultaneous ascent of the seven faces of “Mount Sustainability.”  First, the company would have to eliminate all of its waste, in all forms.  Second, any and all of the company’s emissions must be benign.  Third, the company must meet its energy needs from renewable sources.  Fourth, the company must “close the loop,” modeling itself entirely on the circular economy found in nature.  Fifth, the transportation of products and people must be as resource-efficient as possible.  Sixth, the company must sensitize its stakeholders, both internal and external, to the importance of environmental sustainability.  Seventh and finally, the company must do its part in redesigning commerce itself, with policies and incentives emphasizing the delivery of value and services instead of just material.

Each face presents a unique set of challenges for any organization, in particular industrial manufacturers such as Interface.  Fortunately, Interface is not alone in its climb, as more and more businesses begin their own ascents of Mount Sustainability.  This May, a group will gather in Washington D.C. to take the next step up the fourth face during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation conference titled The Circular Economy: Unleashing New Business Value. I am excited and privileged to be a part of that conference and to have an opportunity to address those assembled together.

I am confident that the attendees will return to their homes and businesses with a stronger knowledge and understanding of the circular economy.  I aspire to even more for each of us though.  My great hope is that we will find a deeper and more meaningful answer to a simple question: “Why should we care?”

This answer, different for everyone, is what will enable us to inspire others, to find and recruit fellow “mountain climbers.”  It serves as a compass for all sustainability-minded people.  Most importantly, as with my grandfather, it is the foundation of our own environmental visions.  Let’s use those visions to close the loop, to indeed unleash new business value, and to make sure that in doing so, we leave a healthier planet for generations to come.