The Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness
Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing
St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada
June 20 to June 24, 2005
On Responsibility in the Private Sector
Ray C. Anderson, Chairman of the Board, Interface Inc.
Keynote speech to the conference on June 22, also delivered at the World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax on June 23, 2005
Greetings from Atlanta. Accent. . .
While you tune your ears to my way of talking, let me begin with a story: Two women met in line at the Pearly Gates. Said Mary to Nancy, “How did you get here”? Replied Nancy, “It was very, very cold; I went to sleep and froze to death. What about you?” Said Mary, “I came home unexpectedly, sure I would find my husband with another woman. I burst into the living room, but there he sat calmly reading the paper, smoking his pipe. I rushed upstairs and looked in every room; under the beds, in the closets. I ran downstairs, looked in every room, went into the garage, looked under the cars, in the tool shed; rushed back inside, downstairs to the cellar, back upstairs, and I had a heart attack on the stairs and died. So, here I am.” “A pity”, said Nancy. “If you had just opened the freezer door first. . . ”.
My assignment today is to open the right door and give you a timely glimpse of the future, as I see it. I shall focus my comments on my personal interpretation of two long term trends, which, as they unfold into the future, will most likely determine the fate of humankind on the earth.
You should first understand that I speak as an industrialist, some would say a radical industrialist, but as competitive as anyone you know and as profit minded. So, before I give you my point of view on the future of humankind, maybe you would like to know how I—an industrialist—came to have a point of view on this lofty subject.
If you will, follow me in your imagination for a few minutes. You are 60 years old. (That may be easier for some than others.) The company you founded when you were 38 is now 21+ years old. Amazingly, it survived start-up from absolute scratch—a green field start-up from just an idea for a new product. You remember vividly that day in your start-up year, in the teeth of a recession, when your factory had been built and equipped, your initial work force hired and trained, raw materials bought and paid for, products developed, and there was not a single order on the books. You learned that day, indelibly, the value of the customer—the source of the next order, the next heart-beat, without which everything would be lost.
But, now, in your 61st year the business has succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. At age 21, it is a public company, doing business in 100 countries, with manufacturing on four continents. It has come through three major recessions, including that start-up recession, and is on its third leg up. Sales are approaching a billion dollars a year. It (and you) are a success by anybody’s standard definition of success.
Futhermore, you have put a succession plan in effect. The next generation of management is in place and battle-tested; they have brought your company through the recent recession. At age 60, where do your thoughts turn? To retirement in the mountains, to the sea shore? To chasing a little white ball? To travel and leisure?
Some one has said that, “Everybody has just one story to tell, her or his own story.” I have just given you a brief excerpt from my story. That’s where I was 11 years ago. What I haven’t told you, yet, is what else was going on the summer of 1994.
The birthing of a new company from scratch had been a frightening experience, especially when one’s life savings had been at risk and one’s two daughters had been teenagers, the older just two years away from college; and one had left the security of a perfectly good job with a perfectly good company to “bet the farm” on this new product idea. You can appreciate, one would have developed a very special attachment to this “third child” (after one’s two natural daughters). And one would care a great deal about what this child would grow up to be. Very naturally, a sense of legacy would be working away in one’s subconscious, if not one’s conscious, mind, in the summer of one’s 61st year.
How then would you, in this position, have reacted if you had begun to hear through your sales force a strange, new question from your customers (to whom you had learned to listen very carefully 20 years before, looking at that empty order book)? The question: “What is Interface doing for the environment”? How would you have responded if you had begun to hear about requests for bid quotations that asked your company to state its environmental policies when it competed for business? What would you have said if a report had come to you through one of your top sales managers that a certain environmental consultant to a certain major customer had said, “Interface just doesn’t get it”! And that piece of business was slipping away.
Do you know what I said? “Interface doesn’t get what”? (Rather confirming the consultant’s comment.)
If you have been following in your imagination that 21 year preamble, you may now be able to identify with me when two of my managers approach me with the assertion that our sales force is begging for answers. What are we doing for the environment? What are our environmental policies? And they suggest convening a new task force of people from our businesses around the world to assess our company’s environmental practices, to begin to frame some answers.
“That sounds good to me”, I say. “Go for it”. Then the show stopper: They say, “We want you to address the new task force, give it a kick-off speech, and launch it with your environmental vision.” What? What environmental vision? In my whole life, I have never given one thought to what I or my company are taking from the earth or doing to the earth. I do not have an environmental vision. I do not want to make that speech. I cannot get beyond, “We obey the law. Comply.” So, I drag my feet, but they stay on my case. Finally, I relent and agree to speak. The date is set: August 31, 1994.
Come the middle of August, I have not a clue as to what to say, but I know “Comply” is not a vision. I am sweating. It is a propitious moment.
At that very moment, a book lands on my desk. It has come by a circuitous route. A young woman in Seattle, working for the State of Washington’s Environmental Protection Department, hears a guy speak, likes what he has to say, and buys his book. After reading it, she sends it to her mother, a sales manager for a carpet tile company who has had to endure and relay the message, “Interface just doesn’t get it”, and has also had to choke on her CEO’s response, “Interface doesn’t get what”? The book is about “What”; she sends it to her CEO, me, and it lands on my desk at that propitious moment. It is entitled, “The Ecology of Commerce”. Its author is Paul Hawken. I’ve never heard of him.
It is pure serendipity. Without a clue as to what is in it, I start to thumb it. On page 19, I come to an arresting chapter heading, “The Death of Birth”. I begin to read. On page 25, I find the full meaning of the chapter heading, and encounter four terms I have never before heard mentioned together in one paragraph: carrying capacity, overshoot, collapse, and extinction, i.e., the death of birth. Species disappearing never ever to be born again. I read:
“A haunting and oft-cited case of overshoot took place on St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea in 1944 when 29 reindeer were imported. Specialist had calculated that the island could support 13 to 18 reindeer per square mile, or a total population of between 1,600 and 2,300 animals. By 1957 (13 years), the population was 1,350; but by 1963 (6 years), with no natural controls or predators, the population had exploded to 6,000. The scientists double-checked. The original calculations had been correct; this number vastly exceeded carrying capacity, and sure enough, the population was soon decimated by disease and starvation. Such a drastic overshoot, however, did not lead to restablization at a lower level, with just the “extra” reindeer dying off. Instead, the entire habitat was so damaged by the overshoot that the number of reindeer fell drastically below the original carrying capacity, and by 1966 (just 3 years later) there were only 42 reindeer alive on St. Matthew Island. The difference between ruminants and ourselves is that the resources used by the reindeer were grasses, trees, and shrubs and they eventually return, whereas many of the resources we are exploiting will not.”
Reading this for the first time nearly 11 years ago, I knew it was a metaphor for the earth and humankind. It was an epiphanal moment, a spear in the chest.
I read on and was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment, and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment—the industrial system of which I and my “successful” company were an integral part. A new definition of success burst into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept.
Hawken made the central point of his book in three parts: 1) The living systems and the life support systems of Earth are in decline; we are degrading the biosphere; unchecked, it will continue to decline and we will lose the biosphere. It contains and supports all of life. 2) The biggest culprit in this decline is the industrial system—the linear, take-make-waste industrial system, driven by fossil fuel-derived energy, wasteful and abusive. 3) The only institution on Earth that is large enough, powerful enough, wealthy enough, pervasive enough, influential enough to lead humankind out of the mess it is making for itself is the same institution that is doing the most damage, the institution of business and industry—my institution, for most of you, your institution.
I took that message to heart and made that speech, drawing shamelessly on Hawken’s materials. I challenged that tiny gathering of people, only about 16-17, to lead our company to sustainability—which we defined as eventually operating our petro-intensive company (energy and materials) in such a way as to take nothing from the earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable—not another fresh drop of oil—and to do no harm to the biosphere. I just stunned that little group, and shocked myself with this challenge, and found for myself a whole new purpose in life—in my 61st year. I simply said, “Unless somebody leads nobody will. Why not us?”
For nearly 11 years, now, we have been on this mission; we call it, “climbing Mt. Sustainability”, a mountain higher than Everest, to meet at that point at the top that symbolizes zero footprint—zero environmental impact. Sustainable: taking nothing, doing no harm. I have told that story in far greater detail in the book I published in 1998, entitled “Mid-Course Correction”. Its title is intended to represent my own personal mid-course correction, my company’s, and the one I would wish for humankind. And especially its industrial system. And especially its industrial system, and a component of it that is dear to many of us: the built environment. Today, I would praise Paul Hawken’s third point differently: unless business and industry come aboard, our descendants will inherit a hellish world.
And, the amazing thing is, this initiative has been incredibly good for business! What started out as the right thing to do quickly became clearly the smart thing, as well. First, we are leaner; our costs are down, not up. Cost saving from eliminating waste alone, the first face of the mountain, have been $262 million. Second, our products are better than they have ever been, because sustainability, leading us to Biomimicry has proven to be an unimagined source of inspiration and innovation.
[Story of Entropy® . . .]
Third, our people are galvanized around a higher purpose. Maslow had it right in his hierarchy of human needs: self-actualization is at the top, and that translates into higher purpose. (By the way, there is no more strategic issue for a company, or any organization, than its ultimate purpose. For those who think business exists to make a profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist. Surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that.) Fourth, to round out the business case, the goodwill of the market place has been astounding! No amount of advertising could have generated as much, or contributed as much to the top line—to winning business. To our customers: Thank you! Believe me, we do not take it for granted. Good will is earned today. And this we promise, never knowingly to foist an inferior product on you in the name of sustainability.
During the last five years, those four advantages—costs, products, people, goodwill—have been the salvation of Interface during a recession that saw our primary marketplace shrink by 38% from peak to trough—38%! As a heavily leveraged company with over $400 million in debt, we might not have made it without the sustainability initiative and, especially, the support of our customers. This revised definition of success—this new paradigm—has a name: “Doing well by doing good”. It is a better way to bigger profits.
How are we doing on this environmental side? Here are some metrics, comparing 2004 with our baseline year 1994:
Now, to the two trends. Let me share with you the larger meaning I have discovered in these 10 plus years of near total emersion in this new paradigm. During these years, I have acquired a deeper understanding of what Hawken was saying in his book—that we are losing the biosphere that supports us and some 30 million other species. It is a very, very long term trend. It is the first of the two trends that I believe will ultimately determine the fate of humankind on Earth.
I have asked myself over and over for nearly 11 years, and I ask you, how would a living planet—the rarest and most precious thing in the universe—lose its biosphere, i.e., its essential livability? We take it for granted and don’t want to believe losing it is even possible. But, think about it, and you know, if Earth, someday in the distant future, has lost its livability—its biosphere—it will have happened insidiously:
One silted or polluted stream at a time;
One polluted river at a time;
One collapsing fish stock at a time;
One dying coral reef at a time;
One acidified or entrophied lake at a time;
One over-fertilized farm at a time, leading to one algae bloom at a time.
One eroded ton of topsoil at a time;
One developed wetland at a time;
One mansion built on a fragile marsh hammock at a time;
One disrupted animal migration corridor at a time;
One butchered tree at a time;
One corrupt politician at a time;
One new open-pit coal mine in a pristine valley at a time;
One decimated old growth forest at a time;
One lost habitat at a time;
One disappearing acre of rain forest at a time;
One political pay-off at a time, resulting in one regulatory roll-back at a time;
One leaching landfill at a time;
One belching smokestack or exhaust pipe at a time;
One depleted or polluted aquifer at a time;
One desertified farm at a time;
One over-grazed field at a time;
One toxic release at a time;
One oil spill at a time;
One breath of fouled air at a time;
One-tenth of a degree of global warming at a time;
One exotic disease vector at a time;
One new disease at a time;
One invasive species at a time;
One perchlorate contaminated head of lettuce at a time. (Perchlorate is rocket fuel, and it is in the ground water of the San Joaquin Valley, of California thanks to Aerojet General.)
One chloro-fluorinated or methyl-brominated molecule of ozone at a time, creating a deadly hole in the ozone ultra-violet radiation shield;
One poorly designed carpet at a time;
One thoughtlessly designed building or building interior at a time;
One misplaced kilogram of plutonium at a time;
One more ton of spent nuclear fuel at a time, looking for a safe and secure home for 240,000 (!) years;
One advance of urban sprawl at a time;
One insensitive or uninformed architect or interior designer or facility manager or manufacturer at a time;
One songbird at a time;
One PCB-laced orca, one whale, one dolphin, one trumpeter swan, one mountain gorilla, one polar bear, one leatherneck turtle at a time;
One entire wild species at a time; and
One poverty-stricken, starving, diseased, or exploited human being at a time;
That is how it would have happened, and we know that it is happening already just that way—so many ways! You could make your own list, just as long without any duplication. It is a long, long slippery slope, and we are on it. That is the first trend. We are losing one strand of the web of life at a time, inexorably, and it will not stop until either we homo sapiens come to our senses, or we, too, are gone and can do no more damage. If we do come to our senses in time, that will happen one changed mind at a time.
Now, let me address the genesis of that change of mind, admittedly in a very cursory way, touching on some key milestone events:
If we go back not so far in history, we know there was a time when some people, so-called “noblemen,” had life and death power over other people. The latter were literally chattel, i.e., property, and the nobleman property owner could do what he pleased with his property, including kill it for expediency’s sake, or just for fun, if he was so inclined. For western civilization that eventually changed, as the field of ethics emerged. Ethics is about doing the right thing, and today we know that the power of life and death by one person over another is manifestly wrong.
But what if the “nobleman” of more recent times (the wealthy property owner) owned or coveted a piece of land, say the northwestern corner of Wyoming—if I may use an American example—with the idea of developing those amazing geysers for his own profit, or to keep for his exclusive personal enjoyment? To head off such a possibility, the U. S. Congress in 1872, during the presidency of Ulysses Grant, set aside Yellowstone National Park. Later, President Theodore Roosevelt, under the urging of explorer, mountain climber, and writer John Muir, raised the public profile of Yellowstone and other natural wonders of America. And still later Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service, to include Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite, Grand Teton, and many others. (Maybe you have visited Muir Woods, that stand of redwoods near San Francisco, named for John Muir, often credited with being the father of the conservation movement in America.) So the notion evolved that ethics should extend to land, especially land of such breathtaking beauty. The ethical thing to do, the right thing to do, was to protect this natural beauty for all people. Today, we know this is manifestly true; it’s the right thing to do.
Years later in 1933 (72 years ago!), Aldo Leopold, another American, writing about land ethics in a larger sense, observed that what happens to the land in terms of its plant life, determines habitat. Habitat, in turn, supports animal life, and the specific habitat determines, even dictates, what species live there; so the field of ecology developed, the science of studying the web of relationships among flora, fauna, and even the microbial world, that altogether form the web of life.
Then, some really intelligent people began to ask strange questions, such as, “If the brown bear stops breeding above 5000 feet elevations (as it has), what does that mean for us homo sapiens?”
Out of such inquiry arose bigger questions, such as, “How are humans affecting the web of life, that is, ‘the biosphere’”? It is composed of, and contains, all the living systems and life support systems of Earth – all living things, bound together in a fragile, interdependent web, the intricacies and complexities of which we have only barely begun to understand. But this we know: we are part of it, not above it, not outside it – a realization that is a hopeful sign of our increasing maturity as a species.
Then, a brilliant and brave woman named Rachel Carson brought such inquiry (How are humans affecting the biosphere?) to a new level with her exposure of the chemical industry – a human invention and a central part of the modern industrial system – in her landmark book Silent Spring, published in 1962. Most people would say that book launched the American environmental movement. Another way to think about it is that Rachel Carson extended the field of ethics beyond people and land to include all the creatures that live on the land, and in the air above the land, and in the waters that cover the land. We know in our hearts she was right to do so. The prospect of a silent spring brought to life in our minds’ eyes and in our hearts the reality of the abuse by the industrial system; and we knew it was manifestly wrong. She gave meaning to “environmental ethics”.
She was pilloried by the chemical industry, just as Copernicus had been pilloried by the church for saying the earth was not the center of the universe. Copernicus backed down; she did not. What a woman! That is why she is my choice as Woman of the Century. She was the quintessential wielder of the Power of One!
As the abuses of the industrial system began to be exposed by this courageous woman, peeling back the onion, the field of ecology was broadened to extend to industrial ecology, asking just how bad is the abuse caused by this industrial system and what should we do about it? The answer was, pretty bad! And out of Rachel Carson’s shockwave came practically all of the legislation of the ‘60s and ‘70s aimed at protecting the environment, including the creation of the American EPA and its regulatory authority.
The regulatory system: has it slowed the rate of abuse? Yes, it has, but has it turned the negative trends positive? My advisors and researchers—and they are among the best in this field, Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus, Amory Lovins—tell me that not one peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the last 30 years has said, yes, the global trends are now positive. Though there are exceptions and victories to be celebrated, the overall global trends with the environment are still in the wrong direction. Biodiversity is plummeting. (The death of birth.) The human footprint is growing.
But, the trend in environmental ethics is well established. Today, we see a clear-cut old growth forest and we know, manifestly, that is wrong. We see deformed aquatic life caused by PCBs and we know, manifestly, it is wrong. We read on a label, “This paint contains lead,” and we know, manifestly, it is wrong—not to mention, stupid. We see human encroachment on nature more and more, and we know it is manifestly wrong. We see a building that is hogging energy or whose interiors are finished with rain forest mahogany or whose exterior is thousand year old redwood, and we know manifestly that, too, is wrong.
So, this thing called environmentalism is not new and not left-wing whacko. It dates from way back. Though religious conservatives prefer to call it “creation care”, it’s the same thing. It is an apolitical extension of a very long-term progression in the definition of what’s the right thing to do. Progress may occur in fits and starts with occasional setbacks, but the direction in environmental ethics is well established. There is an inevitability that goes hand-in-glove with the maturing of a species – a growing sense of right and wrong, extending to all of creation, including one of humankind’s most pervasive inventions: the industrial system and its built environment. This is the second trend.
Which will prevail? I suggest that the fate of homo sapiens will be determined at the intersection of these two trends.
For in the final analysis, the ethical thing – the right thing to do – is driven by enlightened self-interest. Not only does ecology tell us we are part of nature, not above or outside it; it also tells us that what we do to the web of life we do to ourselves. Industrial ecology tells us the industrial system, as it operates today, simply cannot go on and on and on, taking, making, wasting – abusing the web of life. The industrial system takes too much, extracting Earth’s natural capital. It wastes too much. It abuses too much. It takes stuff and makes stuff that very quickly ends up in landfills or incinerators – more waste, more abuse, more pollution. I’m told that < 3% of the material processed through the system has any value whatsoever six months after its extraction from the earth. Your 9 lb laptop computer, icon of the information age, required the processing of > 40,000 lbs of stuff to distill that 9 lbs.
Industrialism – the industrial system of which we are each a part —developed in a different world from the one we live in today: fewer people, more plentiful natural resources, simpler lifestyles. What a difference today! These days, industry moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, wastes, pumps and disposes of four million pounds of material to provide one average, middle-class American family their needs for a year. Really, with people everywhere aspiring to the American standard of living, that cannot go on and on and on in a finite world; and it is finite. You can see it from space. That’s it! There isn’t any more. The rate of material throughput—the metabolism of the system—is now endangering our prosperity more than enhancing it, and the toxicity of some of that stuff is really endangering the biosphere, thus everyone’s health, ours and that of those 30 million other species. It is manifestly the wrong thing to do. It must be changed, at the nexus, out of a growing sense of ethics. Do you see, it is all a design problem? For you designers here, here’s the crux of my message: It is very important to the future of humankind that any of you in design form a very clear understanding of “ethical design”—design for sustainability and commit to it for a lifetime. Truly, though, are we all designers. I’m color blind, but I designed a green company. Facility managers design a functioning management system; Government designs incentives to steer society, etc.
A sustainable society into the indefinite future, arising from the nexus of these two trends, depends totally and absolutely on a vast re-design triggered by an equally vast mind-shift—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, until the entire system of which we are each a part has been transformed into a sustainable system, existing ethically in balance with Earth’s natural systems, upon which every living thing utterly depends—even civilization itself.
There is no question in my mind, based on our experience at Interface, that there is a clear, compelling, and irrefutable case—business case—for sustainability; yet the skeptics remain. So, given the skeptics’ reluctance, even disdain, and unwillingness to accept my case, I have begun to challenge the skeptics to make their case. More precisely, I would like to hear the business case for:
What is the business case for destroying the basic infrastructure of civilization itself, the natural systems upon which everything depends, including the economy? For what economy can even exist without air, water, materials, energy, food, plus climate regulation, an ultra-violet radiation shield, pollination, seed dispersal, waste processing, nutrient cycling, water purification and distribution (natural filtration and the hydrologic cycle), soil creation and maintenance, flood and insect control – all supplied by nature and her natural systems. The economist would say, all these are externalities and do not count in the financial system? Talk about a flawed view of reality! Without any of them, there would be no economy in the first place? How can it be good business to externalize them and assume license to destroy them by arbitrarily saying they don’t count.
I am waiting with baited breath for the answers, so I can correct my errant ways. Of course, there are no answers, and therein lies the inevitability of sustainability. It’s only a question of how much pain before a growing sense of ethics gets us off the slippery slope and we opt for survival.
Who is really at risk here? Let me introduce you to this person in closing, with another episode from my story.
It was the early days in this mountain climb, a Tuesday morning in March 1996, and I was talking to our people at every opportunity, trying to bring them along, this time in southern California—not knowing whether I was connecting. About five days later, back in Atlanta, an e-mail came to me from Glenn Thomas. He was sending me an original poem that he had composed after that Tuesday morning meeting. When I read it, it was one of the most uplifting moments of my life, because it told me at least one person had really got it. Here’s what Glenn wrote:
Without a name; an unseen face
and knowing not your time nor place
Tomorrow's Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.
A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his sobering point of view
I saw a day which you would see;
A day for you, and not for me.
Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you.
Tomorrow's Child, my daughter-son,
I'm afraid I've just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.
Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander; what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.
Glenn Thomas, ©1996
Folks, every day of my life since, Tomorrow’s Child has spoken to me with one simple but profound message, which I share with you, that we are each part of the web of life and we have a choice to make during our brief visit to this beautiful planet: to hurt it or to help it. For all human beings, it’s their individual choice. For you it is your choice.
Speech Ver.as del.
©Ray C. Anderson
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