Sunday, November 08, 2009

Book Review: Confessions of a Radical Industrial

Many books offer environmental understanding and perspective, but few of them offer a genuine path for tangible change. This is exactly what Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, the new book by Ray Anderson, attempts to do.

In 1973, Ray Anderson founded Interface, a company he built into the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpets. But in 1994, he charted a new course for his industrial, petroleum based company after reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. In the abrupt, soul shattering understanding that followed, Ray Anderson launched a new transformative direction for Interface - to become not only sustainable, but restorative.

That year, he delivered a new vision to his management team that would ultimately make Interface a world leader in sustainability and environmental responsibility:

"So here's the vision (I) share with you today: I want Interface to be the first name in industrial ecology, and here's my challenge to you. I want to know how long it's going to take us to get there. Then, I want t o know what we'll need to do to push that envelope and make Interface a restorative enterprise. To put back more than we take from the earth and to do good for the earth, not just no harm. How do we leave the world better with every square yard of carpet we make and sell?"

That question was eventually answered by Interface's Mission Zero, a formalized corporate vision to make the company fully sustainable by the year 2020. They have come along way towards that goal. Over the past 15 years while governments and industries in the United States insisted that the 7% reduction in greenhouse gases called for by the Kyoto Protocol would destroy the economy, Interface lowered theirs by 71% while increasing sales by two thirds and doubling earnings.

Their environmental success did not stop there. They have also increased renewable energy use from 0 to 28%, water use has decreased by 72%, and the recycled content of their carpets has gone from 0.5% to 24%. These are just a few examples of Interface's transformation to date.

In Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Ray Anderson details this success and outlines a pathway that other corporate leaders can follow in transforming their own organizations. He shares what he's termed the "7 faces" of sustainability that Interface embraced in guiding their efforts to eliminate waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and build environmental responsibility into every aspect of their operations and corporate culture.

Those faces are:
  1. Moving towards zero waste
  2. Eliminating emissions or rendering them benign
  3. Increasing efficiency and renewable energy
  4. Closed loop recycling and turning waste into raw material
  5. Making transport systems resource efficient
  6. Sensitizing employees, suppliers and communities to environmental responsibility and opportunity
  7. Redesigning commerce to assess accurate costs, set real prices, and maximize resource efficiency

Confessions follows Interfaces success and best practices through each of these faces while weaving in first hand stories of the employees and innovators who created these solutions. At each stage, the value of human creativity and innovation is emphasized, alongside the need to harness these gifts as an integral element in the path to true sustainability.

The book is more than platitudes and idealism. By his own admission Ray Anderson is a competitive capitalist with an eye pinned keenly on the bottom line and ultimate success of his business. And this, I'd argue, is a primary reason for his success. In Confessions, he has supplied a pragmatic roadmap for continuous environmental improvement that is anchored in the constraints faced by organizations in the real world. It is a bottom line approach that should gain the attention of industrialists throughout the developed word, where corporations are facing high input costs and the aftermath of the global economic recession. The competitive advantage Interface enjoys thanks to their efficiency and low waste operations can form a new model for the changing economic reality that corporations are facing here in the emerging era of sustainability.

Despite the author's industrial career, the book goes well beyond the typical line between industry versus environment and points towards a more fundamental relationship, one that accurately places human endeavour within the context of the natural world. It is not an indictment against industry, but instead points to its true and sustainable place as a system that operates through the gifts, and limits, of the natural world. Anderson calls this "thinking in the round", a reference to the perfectly efficient and renewable closed circle that all natural systems operate within. It is a sound model to follow.

And in following that model, the Anderson reveals a deep faith that because human beings are an extension of the environment itself, our best enterprises, values, and talents can find alignment and synergy with the natural laws of sustainability. Readers may respond, "This is the view of one person, in one small corner of the industrial world. How does this apply to global environmental problems facing our global society?" I'll let Mr. Anderson answer in his own words,

I am convinced that having a sustainable society for the indefinite future 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 at a time, 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.

Confessions reminds us that while the problems facing the environment are large, the seeds of change are always the same. They encompass the dedicated actions of each individual person doing what they can to improve the world for the better.

However, the magnitude of each person's responsibility is also proportionate to the amount of impact they are responsible for creating. Ray Anderson stands apart not for his environmental awareness, but because he took the rare approach of both confronting the full impact of his petroleum based business, and accepting a level of responsibility that was equal to this impact.

Confessions of a Radical Industrialist and the success of Interface's environmental efforts to date are both testament to this acknowledgment of responsibility. Interface's journey towards complete sustainability is still being written, but with luck and hope we can look forward to reading about those last steps of the journey in Ray Anderson's next book.

For more information visit the Interface website, Mission Zero, or see Ray Anderson speak on TED.


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Anonymous said...

This was a great post. So, it really can be done while still taking care of the bottom line. All those idiots always advocating that we strip all the environmental regulations because it is too hard on business should read this, although I suspect it wouldn't enlighten them much. And as the article mentions, that is the hard part.