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Every Reason for Hope

Despite the challenges that the “old, flawed view of reality” present, a paradigm shift is taking place in the way we view our fragile planet and interconnected inhabitants; the only question we must answer is—will we help it or hurt it?

By Ray C. Anderson with Robin White


Despite the challenges that the “old, flawed view of reality” present, a paradigm shift is taking place in the way we view our fragile planet and interconnected inhabitants; the only question we must answer is—will we help it or hurt it?

Editor's Note: This Fall, Interface will release a sustainability report that will focus on the company's Mission Zero goal for 2020, which states that it will "be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits—by 2020—and in doing so [it] will become restorative through the power of influence." With its goal of realizing a zero carbon footprint just 10 years away, company founder and chairman Ray Anderson has provided the following excerpt from his most recent book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, as a reminder that we in the design community still have "Every Reason for Hope." (Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.)

As big as the challenge of sustainability is for one company like yours or mine—newer, better products and processes that help us in our climb toward sustainability rather than hold us back—a far bigger challenge remains for all of society. How in the world will we do it? I am convinced that having a sustainable society for the indefinite future—whether that means seven generations or a thousand or more—depends totally and absolutely on the vast, ethically driven redesign of the industrial system about which I have written, triggered by an equally vast mind-shift.

But—and this is the hard part—that shift must happen one mind at a time, one organization at a time, one technology at a time, one building, one company, one university curriculum, one community, one region, one industry … one product at a time, until we look around one day and see that there is a new norm at work, and that the entire system has been transformed.

I cling to an observation by Paul Paydos, an associate in the now-divested Interface Fabrics business. "I have never known an ex-environmentalist. Once you get it, you cannot un-get it." The movement is like a ratchet; it only moves in one direction. There's every reason for hope in that observation. By picking up this [article] you have created the possibility that perhaps another mind will be added to the green side of the balance sheet and the ratchet will go "click." That would please me greatly.

And yet, it seems to me that our culture, with all of its taboos, assumptions and mores, is a reflection of something a lot bigger: a whole society's mind-set. So, what about the mind-set that underlies our culture? As you have read, I strongly suggest that we have been, and still are, in the grips of a flawed view of reality—a flawed paradigm, a flawed world view—and it pervades our culture, putting us on Jared Diamond's biological collision course with collapse. It is the paradigm that is reflected in our culture's infatuation with stuff and our willful ignorance of nature.

I unconsciously held the old flawed view of reality before I read Paul Hawken's book [The Ecology of Commerce]. The new view (the post-Hawken view) will undergird any sustainable society that I can imagine. Here are the pieces that must come together. Please pay attention to them, for they represent the way out of the trap we have so artfully built for ourselves.

The old, flawed view of reality that I refer to is the one that treats Earth as if it were infinite in its ability to supply the stuff to feed the industrial system's metabolism, or treats Earth as if it were an infinite sink into which to pour our poisonous waste, including greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.

A sustainable society, into the indefinite future, will accept and honor the fragile finiteness of Earth.
That old, flawed view of reality is the one that adopts the life of a human being as its relevant time frame for caring about the consequences of our decisions—more likely, the working life—rather than recognizing the true long-term, evolutionary time. It holds onto the notion that Earth was made for humankind to conquer and rule, to take what ever we want from nature without regard for the other species that depend on, and even comprise, nature—nature, of which we too are a part, not separate. What we do to the web of life we do to ourselves.

A sustainable society will adopt the truly long view and put humans in their proper relationship with and within nature.
The old, flawed view of reality holds that technology, coupled with left-brained human intelligence, will see us through without our having to address the extractive, abusive attributes of technology that are part of the problem, and without appreciating the right-brain attributes of intelligence that include the human spirit.

A sustainable society will build on the ascendancy of women in business, the professions, government, and education.
Technology must stop destroying the true wealth of nations by its extractive, linear, fossil fuel–driven, abusive, wasteful nature that is focused on labor productivity. It has proven itself all too capable of being a big part of the problem. It must become an even bigger part of the solution.

In a sustainable society, technologies will share different general characteristics. They will be renewable, cyclical, solar-driven, waste-free, benign, and focused on resource productivity.
That old flawed view of reality holds that the invisible hand of the market is an honest broker. Yet the market is as blind as a bat if prices are dishonest.

A sustainable society will insist on ecologically honest prices that will enable a sighted market to work for sustainability rather than against sustainability.
The old, flawed view of reality holds that increasing labor productivity is the route to abundance for all when it is obvious in a world of diminishing nature and increasing human population that the route to abundance for all is through increasing resource-productivity. That's the logic behind all recycling efforts. Even inorganic materials have embodied energy that can be salvaged, and one very important result of increasing resource-productivity is that it puts people to work in the process. For clearly, at the heart of the challenge humanity faces is the imperative to lift the poorest among us out of grinding poverty while healing the already badly damaged Earth in the process.

A sustainable society will respect nature's limits and draw inspiration from them for innovative ways to conserve resources and simultaneously address poverty.
The old, flawed view of reality holds that happiness is to be found in abundance and material wealth (the trappings of affluence), when we know there is more to happiness than just piling up more stuff. We know that consumerism will not bring real happiness, despite the messages with which our children (and we) are bombarded through advertising saturation.

A sustainable society will seek higher levels of awareness and transcendent meaning in life—more true happiness with less stuff.
[I have often proposed a] modification to Paul Ehrlich's environmental impact equation—moving technology (T) from the numerator to the denominator:

I = P ° - A

Let's revisit it and ask ourselves how to make that equation reflect the new worldview I am describing. What about that capital "A" for affluence? To me it suggests that affluence is an end in itself. But what if we thought of it as a lowercase "a" suggesting that it's merely a means to a different end, and that that end is happiness? We might then rewrite the equation again as . . .

I =   P x a   
    T2 x H

. . . in which "H" stands for happiness, the real end we seek. More happiness with less stuff! This describes a new, sustainable civilization, in which environmental impacts become vanishingly small and generations into the indefinite future will be born into a livable world.

And what about the largest, most pervasive, wealthiest institution on Earth … the one now doing the greatest damage? How does it become a leader in transforming society?

The old, flawed view of reality holds to the belief that business exists to make a profit, when we know in our hearts that business makes a profit to exist, and it must surely exist for some higher purpose. What CEO really expects to stand before her or his Maker someday and talk about shareholder value? Or market share? Or the clever manipulation of a gullible public?

A sustainable society will realize that done right, the triple bottom line of corporate social responsibility—economy, environment, social equity—can come together under the banner of authenticity to create a truly superior, totally ethical, financial bottom line—a better way to bigger and more legitimate profits, [and] a better business model.
The old, flawed view of reality holds that the environment is a subset of the economy—the pollution part. In our new enlightenment we acknowledge that the economy is the wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, to quote the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was quoting the archbishop of Canterbury. The environment is the parent; the economy is the child. It is not the other way around, as most of our economists still seem to believe.

A sustainable society will develop a system of economics that gets the prices right ecologically and economically by internalizing the externalities, and thus lovingly protects the parent, nature—the goose that lays all the golden eggs.
So, will we shift paradigms in time and embrace this new view of reality? That is the question of our era. The hell of it is, it's up to you and me, and you now know where I stand.

I began this [passage] by reminding you that I am an industrialist. I do not profess to be a politician, a think-tank guru, nor a B-school wonder. I come from the world of business and industry. I used to accept as fact the economist's view that there were no $20 bills lying in the street—that opportunities naturally attract entrepreneurs to jump on the next big thing. But after all these years I have come to some very different conclusions.

We found hundreds of millions of dollars in eliminating the concept of waste at Interface. We found new products, new processes, new markets, new sources of profit in a changed mind-set and new thinking. So I think it's quite conservative to say that, on a national scale, many billions of dollars are waiting to be found by someone. Perhaps you are that someone, and unless you lead the charge to pick them up, perhaps no one will.

Yes, it has been a big challenge. But I also know it is far from impossible.

Will we Homo sapiens (self-named wise man) shed our hubris, shift paradigms, and opt for survival in time to avoid a global version of Jared Diamond's Collapse? Will business and industry lead the way, and by doing so seize the biggest global market to come along in centuries? Or will business draw back and see nature withdraw her irreplaceable support?

Those are the questions of our era. And to answer, it we have to ask ourselves another one: If someone's got to lead (and profit), why not us?

I can promise you that there's no greater challenge. There's no greater reward, and now there's a compass and a map. They are yours to use and follow.

After all, in 1994 I spun the wheel and turned one very oil-dependent company in a new and better direction. There was no map at all, yet today, we're well on the way to the top of that high, high mountain … one higher than Everest.

We've shown that there's a way to the summit that is good and green and profitable and right and smart. If we've been able to do all that, then, by definition, it must be possible. And, given the kind of company we are, if we can do it, anyone can. And if anyone can do it, there's truly every reason to believe that everyone can.

In March 1996, I gave a talk about our still new environmental mission to the sales force at our Bentley Mills operation in Southern California (the plant that would go on to design and install what was at the time the country's largest industrial solar electric system).

At first I could not say what kind of an impression I was making; it's sometimes hard for me to tell. People seemed to get what I was talking about and they made nice comments; but then, they were sitting in a room listening to Interface's founder and CEO, so naturally they would say nice things.

When I received an e-mail from one of them a few days later, it came totally out of the blue. It was a poem written by one of the Bentley folks. His name was Glenn Thomas, and it was one of the most encouraging moments of my life. It told me that—for sure—at least one person sitting in that meeting room had really gotten it, right down to his soul. Here's the poem. Read it now and see for yourself.


Tomorrow's Child
Without a name; an unseen face,
and knowing not your time or place,
Tomorrow's Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.
A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his shining point of view
I saw a day that you would see;
a day for you, but not for me.
Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I had never had an inkling
that perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you.
Tomorrow's Child, my daughter-son,
I'm afraid I've just begun
to think of you and of your good,
though always having known I should.
Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander, what is lost.
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here, too.


Every day of my life since then, "Tomorrow's Child" has spoken to me with one simple but profound message, which I am presuming to share with you: We are each part of the web of life—the continuum of humanity, sure, but in a large sense, the web of life itself. We have a choice to make during our brief visit to this beautiful blue and green living planet. We can hurt it or we can help it. For you, it is your choice.

Ray C. Anderson is founder and chairman of Interface Inc., whose floor covering brands include InterfaceFLOR, FLOR and Bentley Prince Street. He's the author of Confessions of a Radical Industrialist (St. Martin's Press, 2009) and Mid-Course Correction (Peregrinzilla Press, 1998). Visit for more information.