Ray Anderson showed the art of the possible

Ray Anderson sadly lost his fight against cancer yesterday. There will be a lot of eulogies in the next few days.

It's worth reflecting on the example he gave, because it isn't just that he was an inspirational figure who argued for a sustainable business model.

The main reason why he stood out was that he stepped outside of his business model, and saw the world from the outsiders perspective.

Lots of business leaders have signed up for a more sustainable business future. He was the only one who started off by describing himself as "a plunderer".

Lots of companies have focused on incremental improvements to their environmental performance, stressing the business case and their commitment to the success of the business.

He laid out 'mission zero'. Ultimately, only zero environmental footprint was going to be the satisfactory end of the journey. This wasn't dependant on market conditions, or customer preference. The challenge to the business was to find a way to make it work, and to make it profitable. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it already.

Some business leaders pursue sustainability because they are in a market position where it may provide some competitive advantage. Some CSR commentators and promoters encourage them to do so.

But Anderson understood that the only point in Interface trailblazing a path towards zero impact was if the majority of other businesses followed suit. Why else was he so generous with his passion for the Interface sustainability story - giving around 1,500 talks on the subject since the journey began in 1994.

He leaves his company in good shape, well on its journey. Sadly, we overall are more in need of his drive and inspiration than ever before. As any thoughts of progress towards sustainability in the US founders on the complete breakdown of civil political discourse, the example of successful business leaders who haven't waited for permission, but have begun to build the key components of a successful future and proven that it can be done - well, those people are in short supply.

When you step outside the expectations of where everyone thinks you should go, and aim to take them with you in taking a completely new direction - that is real leadership.

We mourn the passing of Ray Anderson - a real business leader where so many are mere followers.

Posted on: 9 Aug 2011

Tags: CSR Ray Anderson Interface sustainable business mission zero corporate social responsibility Mallen Baker


3 comments for this post

  • Norman V. Werling
    10 Aug 2011

    I'm a retired management accountant who was employed by only three employers from 1956-1999, four if one counts my active duty with the Air Force when my Air National Guard Wing was activated during the 1961 Berlin Crisis. Would you agree that positions me among a dying breed of employee? I read John Sibley's Opinion piece in today's--2011/08/10--Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This was the first I had heard of Ray Anderson's Mission Zero Interface project and of his receiving Mikhail Gorbachev's first Millennium Award. I hope that business and political figures will practice that which Ray Anderson taught and lived, namely to eliminate negative impact on the environment in commerce.

  • Mallen Baker
    11 Aug 2011
    Weblink: http://www.businessrespect.net

    Hi Norman Yes, that's a pretty rare and valuable thing! Thanks so much for adding your comment - we have some way to go, but there are certainly some who are determined to carry the work forwards. Best wishes - Mallen

  • Grainne Madden
    14 Sep 2011
    Weblink: www.gmjassociates.com

    An insightful piece on Ray Anderson. Something I would like to add about his leadership style that I have gleaned from his talks and interviews is his generousity in giving credit to those who worked for him. In fact he often talked about how his managers were really the instigators of the environmental vision and he the follower. But when he followed them, boy did he inspire. I was sad to learn of his death when he had so much more still to give.

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