Ray Anderson: 'Protecting the Earth's biosphere is good for business'

From the Royal Society of Arts lecture by the founder and chairman of Interface Inc

I am first of all an industrialist - as competitive as anyone you know, and as profit-minded as anyone you know. I founded my company Interface from scratch 32 years ago and through the efforts of many wonderful people it's grown into a billion-dollar producer - a global producer of carpets, carpet tiles, textiles and architectural flooring, primarily for commercial and institutional buildings. We have manufacturing on four continents and sales in 110 countries.

Almost 11 years ago, at age 60, I read Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce, and it changed my life and my view of the world. It came for me at a propitious moment. Our customers, especially interior designers, had begun to ask a strange new question, what is Interface doing for the environment? So I had agreed, reluctantly, to speak to a newly assembled environmental task force of specialist people from around the world to address this awkward question - awkward because I could not get beyond "we obey the law".

Paul Hawken's central point is in three parts. One, the life-support system of Earth, the biosphere, is in decline. Two, the biggest culprit is the industrial system. Three, the only institution on Earth large enough, powerful enough, pervasive enough, wealthy and influential enough to lead humankind out of this crisis is the same one that is doing the most damage - business and industry: my institution. I took that message to heart, and I put my company on the road to sustainability, which today I consider its ultimate purpose.

At this point not one company on Earth is sustainable - that is to say, able to meet its needs in its day without compromising future generation's ability to meet their needs in their day. Nor perhaps is there a single product anywhere produced sustainably - that is, with zero environmental impact. We're trying at Interface. That's not to say Interface is alone, but we are certainly among the most aggressive of the early movers. We are finding it incredibly good for business. What began as the right thing to do very quickly became the smart thing as well. Doing well by doing good is the better way to make a bigger profit.