The weaving of a new revolution

Interface 1
Ray Anderson is someone I’ve never met. But I admire him.

He’s a revolutionary, in much the same sense as Henry Ford, or Steven Jobs, or even Johannes Gutenberg. Each of those three represents a turning point in history. Ford for conceiving of the production line that transformed the Industrial Revolution; Jobs for developing personal computers that ordinary people could operate, thereby paving the way for the Information Age; and Gutenberg for inventing the printing press that led to the revolution in world literacy.

Anderson is developing a management system that fully embraces sustainability. That is as great an innovation as Henry Ford’s installation of the production line.

Anderson is not alone in this. There are other multinational corporations that are heading in this direction, too. But they are mostly in Europe and Japan. As far as I know, his company is farther advanced than any other in North America.

His company is Interface, Inc., headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, with revenues topping $1 billion a year, and  26 manufacturing plants in six countries. It is the largest maker of commercial carpeting in the world. One of those manufacturing plants is in Ontario at Belleville.

In 1973, when he was 38 years old, Anderson founded Interface as a manufacturer of carpet tiles. Fifteen years later it was the world leader. But by 1993 it had slipped to second place and was in difficulty.

A turnaround expert was called in who began a rough shaking-up of the company. Tensions mounted, and Anderson, as chairman and chief executive officer, became increasingly concerned.

It was then, in 1994, that Anderson discovered The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken (HarperCollins Publishers, $17.50). « We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy,’’ Hawken writes, « one that can restore ecosystems and restore the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security.’’

« This book changed my life,’’ Anderson said in a speech a year later. « It was an epiphany for me.’’

Since reading the book, he has transformed Interface into a company dedicated to sustainability. In the process, sales have gone up, costs have come down, efficiency has increased, environmental impacts have been reduced, and last year, Interface regained its position as the number one manufacturer of commercial carpets in the world.

The first thing he did was give Interface a mission: « To convert (itself) into a restorative enterprise; first to reach sustainability, and then to become restorative — putting back more than we ourselves take from the earth — by helping others achieve sustainability, even our competitors.’’

In that same 1995 speech, he talked about recycling old carpets into new. At present, that’s possible only with carpet backings. Research is continuing on how to recycle the face fibre.

« If we can get it right — converting our linear processes to cyclical processes — we’ll be sustainable, and never have to take another drop of oil from the earth,’’ he said in the speech.

« We’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear’s carpets … and recycling them into new materials; and (hopefully) converting  sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem.’’

In pursuit of this goal, Interface has already started renting, instead of selling, its carpet tiles. Under « perpetual lease’’ agreements with two separate companies in California, it has agreed to retrieve and replace tiles as they wear out.

This will be the pattern of the future, says James Hartzfeld, head of research for Interface, and it has forced the company to redefine itself. Interface will no longer sell a product, he says. It will sell a service.

It’s a radical concept, because it totally changes how Interface sees itself. And because Interface is assuming unending responsibility for what it manufactures, it is having to plan everything, differently.

This is why I say Anderson is a revolutionary. He’s changing the business of business.NEXT WEEK: Interface in Belleville

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