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Ray Anderson: Our Captain, Our Captain

By 3p Contributor

By: Martin Melaver

Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., author of two books on sustainability and a tireless champion for re-inventing business to service the environment, passed away last Monday at the age of 77.

Ray was vice-chairman of my company for eight years, a mentor, a guide, and a dear friend. I write this in the hours leading up to his memorial service, a bittersweet time for so many of us, whose sadness at his passing is mixed with a celebration of a life that helped launch the sustainability movement globally.

For Ray was one of those rare individuals who somehow touched the core of what human-ness is all about – a blend of ambition and selflessness. He would begin most every talk he gave with the statement that he was as driven and as competitive as any businessman you would ever meet. And yet somehow, he would “flip” this all-so-common human trait, one most of his audience identified with, into something filled with a higher purpose: stewardship of planet earth. He was a self-proclaimed plunderer of natural capital, a sinner – but then by implication so weren’t we all? And his hope and undiminished optimism gave us all a clear path toward redemption.

Ray never said a lot at our quarterly board meetings. But when he did, you sat up and took notice. At one of our last board meetings together, several years ago, Ray came up with this pronouncement: “Wouldn’t it be something,” he said, “if as a real estate development company, we would be profitable as a result of what we didn’t build instead of what we did.”

I thought he was crazy. Well, to be more accurate, what I really thought at the time was more along the lines of it sure must be nice to sit back and make these Yoda-like oracular pronouncements. He’s Ray Anderson. Everything he says is wise, right? How in the hell are we supposed to reinvent a real estate company that profits more by building less?

But like a true radical industrialist, Ray was on to something. It’s just taken a lag time of several years for me to figure that out and launch a new business based on his premise.

It’s a document chock full of data on the diminshment of our home, one that we all need to keep close by. But one chart buried in the middle of the report gets to the heart of it all:

WWF Living Planet Report 2010, p. 73

In 2010, the World Wildlife Federation, in conjunction with the Global Footprint Network, published its Living Planet Report.

The chart looks at Human Development around the globe as it relates to consumption. The message is as clear as it is known to many of us already. We in the first world are consuming more and more resources, but not getting much more from that consumption. We're not getting more in the way of longevity, or reasonable healthcare or educational access, or economic well-being or downright happiness. I don’t know if Ray would have expressed it this way, but our consumption has become both a cause and symptom of our increasing lack of community and our lack of connection to one another.

But Ray knew this intuitively. He knew that we needed to better utilize all that we already have, rather than discard and replace with some new thing. He knew that a sustainability movement was not about technology – despite his engineering background – but about people. It was about changing one mind at a time, one mindset at a time, one business at a time, one community at a time, one law at a time. One of his best aphorisms went like this: “Every time a person embraces the environment, that’s one more of us and one less of them.”

I feel blessed to be one of the many thousands whom Ray embraced as one of his own.

Martin Melaver is a principal and founder of Melaver McIntosh, a sustainable development and consulting firm focused on transformative approaches to regenerating communities and businesses. He is the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community, foreword by Ray Anderson.

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