Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Wretch Like Me: Ray Anderson, Penitent Plunderer

Most of my favorite revolutionaries share one remarkable trait: They realize that the ills they labor against are deeply rooted in their own hearts.  Paul of Tarsus, pillar of early Christianity, honestly believed that he was “the worst of sinners.”  Reformer Martin Luther could hardly stay out of the confessional from hour to hour, although he inspired his followers to lives of selflessness and devotion.

And John Newton, the slave-ship captain best known for writing “Amazing Grace” spoke of spending his latter days in the fearsome company of 20,000 African ghosts, whom he had ushered into slavery or death.  When he sang of grace that saved “a wretch like me,” he was describing himself above all others.

And last week, we read of the passing of another penitent visionary, American industrial pioneer Ray C. Anderson, CEO of carpeting giant Interface, Inc.  Anderson became known as “the greenest CEO in America.”  But he didn’t begin thinking about his impact in the earth till after his 60th birthday.

Ray C. Anderson: I was a plunderer
"I never gave one thought to what we were doing to the earth," recalled Anderson after his awakening in 1994.  “I realized that I was a plunderer and it was not a legacy I wanted to leave behind."

Newton, a wretch; Anderson, a plunderer.  Two men whose lives would be used dramatically for good.

Here’s how the L.A. Times summarized Anderson’s epiphany regarding his industrial empire:
“Interface made carpet tiles from petroleum products; the nylon in the carpets came from oil; the electricity that ran its plants came from fossil fuels; the finished tiles were transported on diesel-powered trucks; the entire enterprise, he would later say, was so oil-dependent that ‘you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry.’ What he had failed to see were his company's harmful byproducts: pollution and waste, including millions of tons of used carpeting that would clog landfills for thousands of years.”

18th century traders like Newton were amassing wealth by plundering Africa of its sons and daughters. Anderson discovered that business leaders like him were doing the same by plundering the earth and imperiling billions of souls. He called the moment of realization like "a spear in the chest."

And so, late in life, Anderson set out to change things.  He bet the company (literally, they say) on the value of sustainable manufacturing, overcoming anger, fierce resistance and defensiveness from many of his key executives.  He became a tireless spokesman for sustainable operations, influencing small and large companies including mammoths Wal-Mart, Dow Chemical and General Motors.

So far, his bet has paid off.  At one plant in Georgia, Interface used to send six tons of carpet trimmings to the landfill every day. By 1997, it was sending none.  In Maine, a plant reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 99.7%.  The company now uses solar and wind power in the place of fossil fuels, and is planting trees to offset the pollution caused by trucks transporting its carpet. The company has even found a way to make carpet out of corn.

Interface measures GHG emissions. They're down 36% from 1996 levels.
"If we're successful,” Anderson told his team, “we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets and other petrochemically-derived products and recycling them into new materials, and converting sunlight into energy, with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. We'll be doing well ... by doing good."

Well, Ray Anderson, you may well have been a plunderer, as the slaver John Newton was a wretch.  But you ended your days very, very well.  We thank God for your life and example, and pray that many other business leaders will take up the mantle you have left us.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


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