22 January 2010

Review: Ray Anderson's "Confessions of a Radical Industrialist"

"Will we bankrupt the future, or assure it?" Ray Anderson asks in his new book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. "Or should we find ways to create wealth sustainably through the efficient use of resources, renewable energy, and closed-loop manufacturing processes that use recycled waste as raw materials?"

Anderson has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement for some time. But for 20 years he was your typical plunderer, to paraphrase the author.

He "founded Interface in 1973 to equip the emerging, technology-driven 'office of the future' with a new kind of carpet, a floor covering that could change along with its owners needs," as he writes. He built the business into a global leader in the commercial carpet industry.

In 1994, however, a colleague from the company's research division passed on a memo from a sales associate that said some customers wanted to know, "What is Interface doing for the environment?" Another associate gave him a copy of Paul Hawken's groundbreaking book, The Ecology of Commerce.

That started Ray Anderson on his journey of discovery -- both personal and corporate -- that led to the company deciding to be a global leader in sustainability and never make a carpet from virgin raw materials again.

It's a story he has told before, on stage and in his 1995 book, Mid-Course Correction, and a third of this new book covers ground from that earlier memoir. But in retelling his personal journey Anderson connects his readers to his true purpose: to demonstrate that sustainability is a worthy and profitable journey and that the journey is the destination.

Along the way, Anderson makes clear the business case for sustainability -- and for accomplishing it "with good old capitalist self-interest firmly in mind."

Anderson never loses sight of the fact that "financial success is the key to achieving sustainability," as he writes in this new book. "A bankrupt company is clearly not sustainable. But sustainability is also a big key to achieving financial success. We have proved that earning a bigger and better, more legitimate profit is possible."

It's an important lesson and one supported by his book's subtitle, "Profits, People, Purpose--Doing Business by Respecting the Earth." I like that he leads with Profits and People; too often, environmentalists try to lead with the planet first and lose sight of the people and their self-interest.

That's why Ray Anderson's story is a good one and Confessions of a Radical Industrialist is an important book. (It's not a perfect book, I must say, and suffers a bit from overstating some points and pontification in spots. Yet the overall message is important enough to forgive these flaws.)

"Efficiency equals profits, profits equal jobs, and good jobs mean a strong economy," Anderson writes. To Ray Anderson, sustainability offers a new business model and a new future characterized by new thinking, new products, and new profits.

(Note: As of this writing, I have just learned that Ray Anderson has been diagnosed with cancer and is heading for further tests at the MD Anderson Center in Houston. My prayers go out to Ray and his family.)

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