Wise Words

"For the first twenty-one years of Interface's existence, I never gave one thought to what we took from or did to the Earth, except to be sure we obeyed all laws and regulations. That is, until August of 1994.

At that time, our research division organized a task force with representatives from all our worldwide businesses to review Interface's environmental position and asked to give the group an environmental vision. Frankly, I didn't have a vision, except "comply, comply, comply." I had heard statesmen advocate "sustainable development," but I had no idea what it meant. I sweated for three weeks over what to say to that group. Then, through what seemed like pure serendipity, somebody sent me a book: Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. I read it, and it changed my life. It was an epiphany. I wasn't halfway through it before the vision I sought became clear, along with a powerful sense of urgency to do something.

Hawken's message was a spear in my chest that remains to this day. In the speech, I borrowed Hawken's ideas shamelessly. And I agreed with his central thesis: while business is part of the problem, it can also be a part of the solution. Business is the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on Earth, and responsible for most of the damage. It must take the lead in directing the Earth away from collapse, and toward sustainability and restoration. I gave the task force a kick-off speech that, frankly, surprised me, stunned them, and galvanized all of us into action.

Later, someone sent me a copy of Daniel Quinn's book, Ishmael. I've now read it six times and I'm here to tell you that Hawken and Quinn together, will not only change your life, but make you understand why it should change. They did both for me. In Ishmael, author Daniel Quinn uses a metaphor to describe our civilization emerging from the first Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution that preceded it. Ishmael likens this civilization to our early attempts at building a pedal-powered airplane-men trying to fly without understanding the laws of aerodynamics. They sent their planes off high cliffs for the sensation of flying, only to crash to the ground. In this metaphor, the high cliff symbolizes the seemingly unlimited resources we started with as a species, resources available to us as we abandoned hunting and gathering, and began to shape our modern agricultural and industrial civilization. No wonder it took a while for the ground to come into sight.

Quinn says that our civilization is in a free fall because we have become "takers" all. From a three million year legacy of "leavers"-thousands of diverse cultures who understood they belonged to Earth-the dominant culture today believes the Earth belongs to it. Pedaling harder will not prevent disaster if the aircraft can't fly. We need to discover the principles of sustainability that will allow us to build a civilization that can stay aloft, a civilization that flies. In 1994, I offered the task force a vision: to make Interface the first name in industrial ecology worldwide through actions, not words. I gave them a mission: to convert Interface to a restorative enterprise; first by reaching sustainability in our practices, and then becoming truly restorative-a company returning more than we take-by helping others reach sustainability. I suggested a familiar strategy (link to 7 steps) including: reduce, reuse, reclaim, recycle (later we added a very important one, redesign); adopt best business practices and then advance and share them; develop sustainable technologies and invest in them when it makes economic sense; and challenge our suppliers to follow our lead. We named this EcoSense™.

I believe we have come to the threshold of the next industrial revolution. At Interface, we seek to become the first sustainable corporation in the world, and, following that, the first restorative company. It means creating the technologies of the future-kinder, gentler technologies that emulate nature's systems. I believe that's where we will find the right model.

Ultimately, I believe we must learn to depend solely on available income the way a forest does, not on our precious stores of natural capital. Linear practices must be replaced by cyclical ones. That's nature's way. In nature, there is no waste; one organism's waste is another's food. For our industrial process, so dependent on petro-chemical, man-made raw materials, this means technical "food" reincarnated by recycling into the product's next life cycle. Of course, the recycling operations will have to be driven by solar energy, too.

We look forward to the day when our factories have no smokestacks and no effluents. If successful, we'll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear's carpets, recycling old petro-chemicals into new materials, and converting sunlight into energy. There will be zero scrap going into landfills and zero emissions into the biosphere. Literally, our company will grow by cleaning up the world, not by polluting or degrading it. We'll be doing well by doing good. That's the vision. Is it a dream? Certainly, but it is a dream we share with our 5000 associates, our vendors, and our customers. Everyone will have to dream this dream to make it a reality, but until then, we are committed to leading the way."

Ray C. Anderson
Chairman, Interface, Inc

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