August 8, 2011

A Giant of Sustainability: Rest in Peace, Ray

I just learned that one of my personal heroes, Ray Anderson, died on Monday at the age of 77 after battling cancer for that last 2 years.

Ray was known best for his inspirational role in the world of sustainability (so many of the leaders of the movement count Ray as a role model). And when I say inspirational, I mean it very personally. When I was searching for my mission in life over a decade ago, and was trying to find out how you could marry the strategies and tools of business with environmental concern, someone suggested I check out Ray's book, Mid-Course Correction. It was literally the first step in my own transformation.

After I had gone about my sustainability journey -- my mid-course correction -- for a number of years, I had the incredible fortune of sharing the stage with Ray at a conference a couple of years ago. Watching Ray the engineer lay out the irrefutable logic for a different way of doing business was like seeing the Beatles perform their greatest hits -- it was all familiar, and we knew the tune, but it was still amazing to see it all live. I didn't know Ray well, and I'm poorer for not spending more time with him. But I am glad I had the chance to tell him how important his work was to me.

Ray's books, including last year's much more personal tale, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, tell the amazing story of a deeply transformational experience, Ray's own personal road to Damascus conversion. His journey began with a book as well, the remarkable and inspirational The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, which hit Ray like "a spear in the chest." He had discovered what the rest of world is still figuring out...the business ecosystem that we had relied on, for all the success and wealth it created, was fundamentally broken. It treated the planet's resources, the balance sheet of the world, as limitless and of no inherent value.

As founder and Chairman of Interface (a flooring company), Ray had never really thought about where all the materials in his petroleum-based products came from, or where they went after he sold a carpet tile (or millions of them). He had built a successful business of scale, employing many people, but now found himself wondering where he had gone wrong.

Ray set Interface on a course to climb what he called "Mount Sustainability" and build a truly sustainable business...even one that replenishes the world instead of drawing down its resources. Over the last 17 years, Interface has discovered how hard a job that really is, but has arguably come further than any enterprise on the planet.

Historians will report that in the late 20th century the world and its business giants began a slow, sometimes painful, pivot away from traditional industrial capitalism to something different...something healthier, more passion-driven, and, yes, more profitable. When they write about this period, a few names and moments will be pivotal. Ray's conversion and evangelism will be at the center of that history.

Instead of easing into retirement, Ray made it his mission to tell the world about his journey and wake business people up to the risks and opportunities in sustainability. He spoke to many thousands of people, giving an astonishing 1500 speeches. His books reached many thousands more. He fundamentally changed the careers and lives of many people looking for a deep connection to their work and their world. Count me among the converted.

Thank you Ray for all that you did.


On August 9, 2011 9:46 AM, Eric McNulty said:

Nice post, Andrew. Ray was a giant and I am sorry that I never got to meet him. In my own journey I am exploring leadership and how we need to think differently about it as we try to address meta-challenges like climate change. Ray is an ideal subject for some of that work and I am grateful that he left an extensive written and video record of his thoughts and experiences.

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