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Ray Anderson, Interface Chairman and Sustainability Leader, Dies at 77

Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, Inc. and a widely recognized leader in sustainable business, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.

Anderson was one of the most vocal proponents of environmentalism’s role in business. He founded Interface, a producer of free-lay carpet tiles, in 1973, and it grew to be a $1 billion company and the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet.

Anderson set a seemingly radical goal for the firm: “Mission Zero,” a commitment to eliminate any environmental impacts by the year 2020. Shortly before his death, he estimated that the company was more than halfway towards this vision. Interface says that in the past 17 years, it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent, fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent, waste to landfill by 82 percent and water use by 82 percent, while avoiding over $450 million in costs, increasing sales by 63 percent and more than doubling earnings.

Anderson transferred day-to-day running of the company to Dan Hendrix in 2001 and spent the next ten years as non-executive chairman. In that time he became well-known as a champion of the business case for sustainability, with over 1,000 speeches to his name. He wrote two books on the topic: Mid-Course Correction (1998) and Confessions Of A Radical Industrialist (2009).  The latter was recently released in paperback as Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.

In 2008 Anderson co-chaired the Presidential Climate Action Plan for the Obama administration, and in the Clinton administration he served as co-chair of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. Anderson was crowned Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 1996 and was named one of TIME magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2007.

He was a commentator on the Sundance Channel series “Big Ideas for a Small Planet”, and shortly before he died also began writing a popular column for Environmental Leader.

“The industrial system takes too much, extracting and frittering away Earth’s natural capital on wants, not needs,” he wrote.  “It wastes too much.  It abuses too much.  It takes stuff and makes stuff that very quickly ends up in landfills or incinerators—more waste, more abuse, more pollution…

“I believe that a sustainable society depends totally and absolutely on a new mind-set to deeply embrace ethical values.  Values that, along with an enlightened self-interest, drive us to make new and better decisions.

“I also believe that it doesn’t happen quickly … it happens one mind at a time, one organization at a time, one building, one company, one community, one region, one new, clean technology, one industry, one supply chain at a time … until the entire industrial system has been transformed into a sustainable system, existing ethically in balance with Earth’s natural systems, upon which every living thing is utterly dependent.”

Anderson was a 1956 honors graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, which last Friday awarded him with an honorary doctorate – his twelfth. Together, he and Interface funded the creation of the Anderson-Interface Chair in Natural Systems at Georgia Tech.

“Not only did Interface and the world lose a great man today, but I lost a friend and mentor,” said Hendrix, Interface’s president and chief executive officer. “Ray’s iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future.”

Anderson is survived by his wife, Pat Anderson, and by his family: daughter Mary Anne Lanier and her husband Jaime of Marietta, Ga.; daughter Harriett Langford and her husband Phil of LaGrange, Ga., and stepson Brian Rainey and his wife Flor of Atlanta, Ga.  Grandchildren include Jay and Whitney Lanier of Asheville, NC, John Lanier and Patrick Lanier of Marietta, Ga., Melissa and Kalin Heflin, McCall Langford, and great-granddaughter Bailey Heflin, all of LaGrange, Ga; and by his brother, Dr. William Anderson of Conneaut, Ohio.

Ray Anderson
Ray C. Anderson is the chairman and founder of Atlanta-based Interface, Inc., a $1 billion carpet manufacturer, and the author of Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, now out in paperback from St. Martin’s Griffin.
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15 thoughts on “Ray Anderson, Interface Chairman and Sustainability Leader, Dies at 77

  1. Ray Anderson was a true hero. He gave credence to the idea of sustainability – business thriving within the confines of sound environmental practice. I learned of him first through the Natural Step movement in Sweden. He has surely joined the pantheon of true heroes protecting our planet. His example should be taught in every environmental science classroom and MBA program in the world.

  2. Bless you Ray Anderson. I am truly saddened to hear of your death. I first learned about you from “The Corporation” and you became my hero. You made a powerful difference and showed so many others what was possible with intention, purpose and determination. Thank you so much for your work. My deepest condolences to your family. You are loved beyond your family and friends. You are loved by untold numbers of those inspired by your legacy.

  3. My hero and mentor, Ray Anderson.

    Ray was an awesome inspiration to me and many others working in the realm of sustainability of our planet.

    In 1998 Jim Hartzfeld was Sr. VP of Marketing for Interface, working under Ray’s guidance, as part of the Interface Sustainability Team. I received a call from Jim, asking me to consider hosting a concurrent event (in Dallas), to the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America.

    As you mention, Ray was selected by President Bill Clinton to Chair the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and the 1999 NTMSA. I joined in that monumental effort, and life for me has never been the same since.

    I was honored to host Ray in 2001, when he came to Dallas to speak to twenty-three CEOs at the SMU Cox School of Business. Ray masterfully, emotionally, and brilliantly shared his story.

    He was a gentle and relentless force in guiding our industrial world toward responsible stewardship of our planet.

    Thank you Ray, for what you’ve taught me.

  4. I am truly saddened because because we have lost a sustainability leader. His book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist is an important case study of the transformation he led Interface through over the last 15 years. @JimHarris

  5. I was so inspired by Ray when I heard him speak at GreenBuild in Atlanta. His gentle touch and incredible reason, large heart and capable communication style bridged many divergent worlds and guided us all toward a more sustainable future. I send best wishes to him and his family who no doubt supported him on his great mission.

  6. A truly thoughtful person and business leader, an inspiration for many us to continue to do better, and a model for responsible thinking and doing.

  7. Very sad news indeed. He was a great leader…visionary, courageous and honourable. He will be missed by many people like me who look for and to leaders like him. Peace.

  8. This is very sad news, Ray Anderson has been an inspiration for me ever since seeing the documentary film, So Right So Smart, a couple of years ago in Auckland, New Zealand.

    It goes without saying that the world desperately needs more like him.

  9. I learned about Ray Anderson from the movie, “The Corporation.” What was so powerful about his example is that it would have been so easy for Mr. Anderson to say, “why should I change? It isn’t profitable in the short term.” But his epiphany as to his status as a “plunderer” transformed not only his business practices, but I believe his very soul. He seemed to understand himself and his fellow man, in a new context. A visionary and a hero to me. Thank you Mr. Anderson for your willingness to change, grow, lead and inspire.

  10. I am sad, and the world has lost one of the true visionaries that people listened to and respected. I will live my life and dedicate my future to trying to be someone who Ray would be proud of. We all should take an extra step, to make that one single difference, to make that one single change, to be a person of influence towards positive change and action.

    See you on the other side Ray!

  11. I also first learned from Mr. Anderson in the movie “The Corporation” and was impressed and inpired by him. A big loss!!

  12. Ray has left an incredible legacy. He was, as he refered to himself, an “industrialist”. He was dedicated to the mission of sustainability and accomplish what so many in business claim to be impossible. Ray Anderson has blazed the trail for others to follow. Thank you, Ray. thank you Interface.

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