WARNING: LONG POST
When Ray Anderson speaks, you listen. It’s simple as that.
When he addressed the Business of Sustainability event at Ashridge on Tuesday, it didn’t matter one bit that I already knew much of the Interface story (something I first became aware of back in 2004, when interview footage with Ray was featured in Joel Bakan’s The Corporation).
To see and hear him first-hand is to fully appreciate his commitment to the cause of sustainable business and – through the success of Interface – to become “the undeniable example” that corporations can do well (extremely well, as it happens) by doing good.
Despite his obvious passion and the stark nature of his core message – that our long-term survival and prosperity requires nothing less than the complete transformation of the current industrial paradigm of “take, make, waste” – he doesn’t come over in the least bit evangelistic.
He exudes a sort of calm authority, with a rather homely and self-effacing style that gives him more the air of benevolent American uncle than idealistic crusader. Indeed, lest anyone should doubt that this is strictly about business, he begins by introducing himself as:
“an industrialist… as profit-minded and competitive as the next man.”
It’s a seductive and engaging mix, and you begin to understand why sustainability is now in the blood at Interface. But it wasn’t always so…
In fact, in 1994, when Ray first announced what has since become known as Mission Zero – action on seven fronts to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 – everyone around him thought he was nuts. (Not surprising really, when you’re in the business of turning petrochemicals into textiles.)
However, since then, Interface has saved over $372million through the elimination of waste – uniquely and deliberately broad in its definition as, “any cost incurred that doesn’t deliver value to the customer.” (Note the word elimination, not reduction – there is no such thing as “acceptable” waste at Interface.)
It has achieved a net absolute reduction of 82% in greenhouse gas emissions, reduced total energy consumption by 45% and water usage by 70%, to name but a few of the impressive statistics.
Over the same period, Ray tells us, sales have increased by two-thirds and profits have doubled – the combination of a well-spring of new product and process innovations, the galvanising effect of Mission Zero on Interface‘s people, and the generation of a level of goodwill that no amount of advertising could ever buy.
The facts speak for themselves: Ray wasn’t round the bend; he was simply ahead of the curve.
In our discussions as a table group, and during the breaks, we find ourselves continually returning the theme of visionary leadership as the dominant thread of the Interface story:
- the willingness to challenge the prevailing mindset;
- the ambition to transform a company, even when immediate practical steps to achieve the vision are unclear;
- the courage to stay the course, recognising that engaging others in such radical change takes consistent and persistent effort over the long-term;
- the humility to admit that – even now – the journey is only half complete, and the conviction to keep on going; and
- the selflessness to look beyond one’s own organisation and seek to share one’s wisdom and experience with others.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who instinctively eulogises the role of leader as visionary and charismatic hero. Far from it, I’m a firm believer in situational leadership – i.e. the style and characteristics of an effective leader depend on circumstance and the people around you.
When you think about it, though, visionary leadership is exactly what was required to achieve the kind of radical change Ray envisaged for Interface; and, arguably, it’s exactly what is now required across business at large, where sustainability is concerned.
Ultimately, sustainability is not a discrete role or initiative or target, it’s a cultural thing – a fundamental belief and way of thinking that encourages us to consider the long-term implications of our actions, over generations.
Such cultural shifts take time to permeate throughout organisations and society. If we agree that sustainability is a must, then we could certainly do with a lot more leaders like Ray Anderson – at every level of business and public life.