Course correction

by Carolyn Chase


ecent reports of the 10th anniversary of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and the spilling of millions of gallons of oil reminded me of the importance of any captain setting the proper course and making sure that corrections are made along the way. Would we all know the name Titanic if a course correction had been made?

Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface Inc., the largest commercial floor covering manufacturer in the world, uses another example. He cites a NASA scientist who points out that 90 percent of the time spacecrafts could be considered "off course." Without critically important mid-course corrections, they would not reach their intended destinations.

As a captain of enterprise, Anderson has confronted directly the need for Interface to transform itself and correct it's course in order to become "the prototypical company of the 21st century." He articulates his efforts to turn his multinational, multi-billion dollar corporation into a "sustainable enterprise" in a new book entitled "Mid-Course Correction."

An admitted "plunderer" of the Earth for most of his 40+ years in the carpet industry, Anderson didn't think much about Interface's impact on the environment except that they comply with the laws and regulations of the 110 countries in which they do business.

But an invitation to speak introduced him to issues that have led to a stunning course-correction. Customers were asking: what were they doing for the environment? Interface did not have adequate answers so they convened a task force to figure it out. In the process of honestly asking and answering the question, Interface has confronted a startling transformation, a transformation that Anderson is convinced will impact every business of every size.

Just to start, it has led to savings of $67 million in hard dollars in the first three years of their effort and they are estimating saving an additional $80 million or more per year when they reach their new sustainability goals.

They are redesigning products for greater resource efficiency and better durability. They are pursuing technologies that will enable them to operate without emitting anything into the air or water that hurts the ecosystem. They have learned to consistently engage and sensitize all 7,000 employees in a common purpose - right down to the factory floor and face to face with customers - "to do the thousands and thousands of little things - the environmentally sensitive things, energy saved here, pollution avoided there - that are "collectively just as important as the five big things, those technologies for the future: solar energy, closed loop recycling, zero waste, harmless emissions, and resource efficient transportation."

They now define waste as any cost that goes into their products that doesn't produce value for their customers. Corporate-wide more than 400 projects pursue direct sustainability goals ranging from persuading their landlord to install compact fluorescent light bulbs to creating new sustainable business units within the company.

Most interesting in this businessman's journey is his honest telling of his personal struggles to make the connections between traditional business issues and environmental progress. Along the way he worries, "Have I put my company on a hopeless, misguided tangent?" He relates his own search to answer the objections of those referring to "chicken little environmentalists" and how to reconcile the positions of "technophiles" vs. "technophobes" and "foot draggers" vs. "alarmists."

Ultimately he found his connections in the fact that "business and industry, together, the largest, wealthiest, most powerful, most pervasive institution on Earth, and the one doing the most damage, must take the lead in directing the Earth away from the route it is on toward an abyss of man-made collapse."

The results of seven years of pursuing cultural change are reported in "Mid-Course." They have started to track all their materials extracted for production and have achieved a reduction from 1.55 pound per dollar of sale to 1.2 pounds per dollar. That's a 22.5 percent improvement - a de-materialization - which in 1997 yielded $256 million of sustainable sales.

Meanwhile, the new thinking - the new mindset - is beginning to permeate everything they do, especially product design and development. Anderson points out that underlying the entire effort is the idea that they can do well by doing good. In 1997, Interface, Inc. was named one of the Top 100 Companies to Work For in America by Fortune magazine - not a usual award for such a manufacturing industry.

While Anderson notes how much persistence and "hard work" are required, he also cites the importance of connecting people to an ultimate strategic purpose that has reconciled nature's interests with business interests. They were "astonished by the positive effects on the morale" of everyone and especially on "the salespeople, tough, street-wise competitors."

Included in the book is a list of Interface's "Practices Leading to Sustainability" and a bibliography that catalogs the many influences in his journey thus far.

Generally viewed as an unlikely thesis from a man in Anderson's position, Mid-Course Correction combines Anderson's passion with the pragmatism that comes from his roots as Georgia-Tech-educated industrial engineer. His thinking is as clear as his mission: there is much to be done, and it must be done. Business people can and must lead the way.