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Schooled By An Industrialist

Outdoor Industry Association keynote makes members squirm… we hope

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by Matt Colon | 2006-01-31 03:00:00-07

Schooled By An Industrialist

Ray Anderson stood behind the podium wearing a jacket and tie and looking a little out of place. Not that he was uncomfortable – far from it. It was just that he was apparently indifferent to the standard Outdoor Retailer dress code. Or perhaps, as the person sitting next to me suggested, he just hadn’t gotten the memo. Outdoor Retailer isn’t typically a jacket and tie kind of venue. Mostly you see a lot of snappy-looking people clad in bright, stretchy stuff hinting that somewhere deep inside they’ve probably got a couple of wild hairs.

And as if to heighten the sense of dissonance between himself and the large group of people he was addressing, Mr. Anderson opened his talk by flatly stating, “I am an industrialist.” Not just some petty ironmonger either – the man is founder and CEO of Interface, a huge and growing floor covering manufacturer. And just to make sure we were all on the same page, he added that the floor covering industry has historically been a notoriously noxious and wasteful business. For something like four decades Ray Anderson was a part of that history, a self-described plunderer.

So what was a guy like this doing up in front of a fairly large gathering of outdoor enthusiasts – a crowd of people who presumably care a lot about the natural world he’d spent half a lifetime pillaging? The answer has to do with the other half of his life – the half he’s inhabiting right now, doing gleeful and potent penance for the sins of his past. He was addressing us because his penance involves an outrageously ambitious attempt to revolutionize not just his own company, but the entire industrial culture in which it is embedded as well. Anderson stood before us at the invitation of the Outdoor Industry Association because he had a story to tell. It was a story of the epiphany that led him to make wildly unconventional choices about future shape of his life’s work.

Ray Anderson can tell you to the day when the lightning bolt hit. He can tell you the precise source of his insight, and he has monitored the impact that insight has had, both on his own life, and on the life of his company. As Mr. Anderson tells it, he was reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce one day when he realized that the way he had been doing business, although completely legal, was manifestly wrong. It was wrong because it was wasteful, harmful and unsustainable. He was a plunderer. He came to the conclusion that he’d been stealing from his grandchildren, and it was not the kind of legacy he wanted to leave. He decided to do something about it. He vowed to move beyond basic compliance with the law and committed his company to sustainability. Anderson said that it became clear to him that somebody simply had to make this move, and he found himself wondering, “why not us?”

The rest is not so much history, as history in the making. Interface’s progress toward sustainability over the last ten years has been a jaw-dropping success. Anderson reported greenhouse gases down 52%, the use of non-renewables down 43%, effluents down 53%, landfill waste down 80%, and a whopping $289 million in cost avoidance through waste reduction. He is quick to point out that they have a long way to go, but he has not wavered in his commitment to reaching his target of zero impact by 2020. Mr. Anderson said that this approach has required him to embrace the notion that, “we are our entire supply chain.” He has reorganized his company around taking responsibility for the damage that it does and insisting on a ferocious commitment to transforming the practices that contribute to that damage.

What makes this story particularly uplifting is the not too familiar feeling that one of the good guys has been rewarded for making difficult choices. At Interface, costs are down as a result of changed practices, products are the best they’ve ever been, people in the company are galvanized around a higher purpose and the company has reaped enormous good will in the marketplace.

Since 1994 when the lightning bolt hit, Anderson has been relentlessly crusading to change the way people think about their responsibility to the world they live in, by both example and exhortation. Listening to him speak on Saturday morning, it became clear that he’s gotten very good at it. He closed his talk by reading a poem called Tomorrow’s Child, and as he finished reading, the entire audience of outdoor industry professionals responded with an immediate standing ovation.

And this, of course, is where things start to get a little uncomfortable. For so many of us in the outdoor industry Ray Anderson’s message, and his example, are enormously compelling – moving even. And that’s exactly as it should be. But I’d be surprised if I was the only one in the audience feeling the slightly bitter tang of irony as I stood there clapping. At the front of the room, was a man in a coat and tie telling the assembled climbers, backpackers, paddlers and skiers that his decision to transform a large industrial company was fundamentally the result of the realization that it was simply and manifestly the right thing to do.

Mr. Anderson did not make his case for sustainability on aesthetic grounds, he didn’t explore with us the spiritual implications of how we respond to this set of challenges, and he didn’t mention the potential for human transformation that wild places represent. He didn’t describe what it feels like to stand in a river, get lost in the desert, drop into a couloir, or even just walk off into unknown country. Whether or not Mr. Anderson knows anything about these things I couldn’t tell you, but I know for a fact that many of us do.

For a significant number of people in the outdoor industry, our debt of gratitude and sense of responsibility to the natural world stem not just from the realization that our grandchildren are heirs to the what we leave them, but also from the very personal and specific set of experiences around which we have attempted to build our lives. If any segment of the business world has a heightened obligation to move aggressively toward sustainability, it seems we should be prime candidates. Upon hearing Ray Anderson’s talk, and recognizing once again that somebody has to make this move, it’s pretty hard to avoid the obvious question: why not us?


"Schooled By An Industrialist," by Matt Colon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2006-01-31 03:00:00-07.


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Schooled By An Industrialist
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Schooled By An Industrialist on 01/31/2006 00:11:11 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Schooled By An Industrialist

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Schooled By An Industrialist on 01/31/2006 00:59:10 MST Print View

Three questions from a time past:

If not now, when?
If not here, where?
If not me, who?

More often than not, the answers are still forthcoming.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Who are you in bed with? on 01/31/2006 14:12:47 MST Print View

I was thinking of the Shania Twain song, "Who's bed have your shoes been under?"

I've written before about the paradox of the outdoor recreation equipment industry using materials made by some of the biggest baddest industrial giants. We cry when Weyerhauser chops down a spotted owl nest while wearing products with components made by Dupont, Montsanto, Dow, offshore sweatshop labor, synthetics made in the third world to skirt EPA regulations, yadda, yadda, yadda. Sure, the forest is a primary concern, but we're thowin' the baby out with the bathwater when we patronize polluters of every kind.

The only manufacturer I have seen jump on this is Patagonia, using organic cotton and recycled PET plastic for fleece. If there are more, lets hear about them!

Go through your pack and see what you come up with:

*Titanium alloys. How was it mined and refined? What kind of conditions are the workers exposed to?

*Plastics. We start with the petroleum industry and work our way out. Where are they made? What environmental regulations do they adhere to? Is it a US company gone offshore to avoid the EPA? Some countries like Germany require that any offshore subsidiaries follow the same environmental laws as the parent company does at home.

*Sewn fabrics. Where were the basic fabrics made and what was the environmental impact? Where were the garments made? What political and workplace conditions are the workers subjected to? Are they fairly paid? Footgear looms large in this area and we have all heard the fallout.

*Electronics. Same deal-- pollution and working conditions. Add batteries as a major factor in environmental impact.

*Personal hygiene products. Wanna talk about DEET manufacturing? If Buddha is in your sunscreen, is he smiling?

*Move one step out in the circle-- who do these manufacturers support? Who are they in bed with politically? Are you getting to the top of the mountain and supporting the wrong side with your consumer dollars? It gets more frightening when you look at the offshore connections. What human rights monsters do we support with our consumer dollars?

Daunting isn't it? It's hard to even begin to grasp world trade and the impact we make on people and the planet.

So this is a good thing to see and the really good thing to hear is that this CEO found it was GOOD FOR HIS BUSINESS. That is the thread that will change the world.

harrison Fox
(jimmorris) - F
Sustainable products on 01/31/2006 17:39:23 MST Print View

Ray Anderson is on the forefront of this new movement. He seems to be using principles that could be similar to those presented in William McDonough's book...Cradle to Cradle. Definitely worth a read. And it is not even printed on trees!

Patagonia is not the only one using earth friendly materials. As for organic cotton clothing and bags you can find some at

Glenn Roberts
(garkjr) - F

Locale: Southwestern Ohio
Irreverent? Or merely ambivalent? on 01/31/2006 17:55:22 MST Print View

At the risk of being irreverent, Dale's post (which I like very much) reminds me of a remark allegedly made by Otto von Bismarck: "People who like sausage and respect the law should never know how either one is made."

I admit to a great deal of ambivalence on this issue. I use Patagonia clothing pretty much exclusively - primarily because their stuff fits me better than anything else I've found. However, I do smugly tell myself (as I wheel my weekly can full of trash to the curb) that I'm at least doing a little something to help recycle by buying their clothes.

My alcohol stove makes me put on a Colin-Fletcherish halo: "I no longer burn fossil fuels when I'm in the backcountry - just a few ounces of alcohol, which is renewable." Of course, I used gallons of gasoline as I drove my car to the trailhead.

One thing I've learned from studying history is that we can never go back - only forward. We can change the current state of the industry - not politically, but by our purchasing power decisions. Don't like sweatshops? Then buy only US-made packs - even if they weigh and cost more. Petroleum-based synthetics bother you? Feel free to wear cotton and wool. Mining a problem? Use wood fires and find a wooden hiking staff. (I won't belabor the point with more examples.) I, for one, don't want to go back to the days of canvas, cotton, and leather. I like my titanium, spinnaker cloth, and such.

However, I can decide to carry less gear, replace it less often (don't tell my wife I said that), choose gear made from recycled products (can I really get used to a pop-can stove instead of my Trangia?), spend the weekend "simulating" a backpack trip by camping illegally in the woods at the local (and boring) state park instead of driving 500 miles to the prettier Red River Gorge, etc. I can also choose to pass my used gear on to someone else, to help more people get out and become aware of the issues. We'll never eliminate our impact - all we can do is moderate it within our power.

Edited by garkjr on 01/31/2006 19:48:20 MST.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Bismark's comments on 02/01/2006 14:06:56 MST Print View

Glenn Roberts wrote: "At the risk of being irreverent, Dale's post (which I like very much) reminds me of a remark allegedly made by Otto von Bismarck: "People who like sausage and respect the law should never know how either one is made."

I encourage iconoclasm and you may tilt at my windmills all you like :) Another Victorian age quote went something like, "one should never think about how sausages, or children, are made."

I ran into the global market issue years ago while selling parts for Toyota. They were taking a lot of heat for their competition and I remember some sort of poster or chart that showed a car with captions and arrows listing the country of origin for the parts. Of course, there are components and design input from all over the planet-- the point being that a Japanese car comes from a lot of places other than Japan. Yeahhhhhh, wellll, the profits are in Yen!

My point being that it is darn near impossible for John Q. Backbacker to keep up with all this and of course it goes a lot of places other than the backpacking market niche.

We should be aware and buy with a conscience. How far we would get in the current world market is a big question. Trying to go ultralight with environmentally and socially responsible products seems to be an impossibility at this point.