Carpet king takes sustainable lead

Ray Anderson at his Georgia carpet mill.

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Doug Krizner: It's time now for our final installment of Consumed -- a special series coming to you on this and other American Public Media programs. All week, we've been pointing out the beauty and the beastliness of the American economy. As the Consumed curtain comes down here on Marketplace Morning Report, we ask: Will beauty tame the beast?

Marketplace's Sam Eaton spoke with the head of a company called Interface Carpet who said: "Maybe." But it'll take nothing less than a second industrial revolution.


Sam Eaton: Think about all the ingredients that go into making industrial carpets -- nylon, glues, the rubber backing -- and you can pretty much sum them up with one word: oil. So when the founder of one of the world's largest carpet companies pledges to eliminate oil from its products, the world takes notice.

Ray Anderson: If we can do it here, anybody can do it.

Ray Anderson takes me on a tour of his Georgia manufacturing plant. He founded Interface Inc. more than three-and-a-half decades ago with the novel concept of making modular carpet tiles. Today, Interface has become Anderson's vision for what he calls the second industrial revolution -- this time, with a deeper shade of green.

Anderson shows me a truck-sized grinder that pulverizes worn-out carpets into material that can be recycled into new products:

Anderson: The idea is to eliminate the very concept of waste. Don't even allow the notion to exist -- like nature.

"Nature" was never something Anderson thought much about in the early years of his company. Today, the woods surrounding his solar-powered cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains are his inspiration. From the front porch, Anderson recounts the moment he now calls his "spear in the chest" epiphany: In the early 90s, his customers asked what Interface was doing for the environment -- and Anderson didn't have an answer.

Anderson: It was a moment of conviction. I was convicted, there and then, as a plunderer of the Earth.

Anderson believes a sustainable world demands that second industrial revolution he talks about. And it isn't going to come from a government mandate, or even from consumers. It's the corporations that need to change.

Anderson: Unless business and industry come aboard, it is over for humankind. Because business and industry are leading us down this slippery, slippery slope, and at the end of that lies an unlivable earth.

Interface is nearly halfway toward its goal of having zero environmental impact -- basically, taking nothing from the Earth that isn't renewable, and doing no harm to the biosphere in the process. To get there, Anderson wants to reinvent the way the industry works.

For example: Instead of selling carpets, he wants to lease them to corporate clients. That guarantees Interface a steady stream of recyclable material once the carpets wear out. But it also introduces a revolutionary concept to manufacturing -- corporations taking lifetime responsibility for their products.

Anderson: And that's the fundamental difference between the first industrial revolution and the second industrial revolution. It's about resource efficiency, rather than labor efficiency.

Kick-starting a new industrial revolution takes time, and some critics charge that Interface isn't going far enough, fast enough. But Anderson says persistence, not speed, is the key to reaching the top of what he likes to call "Mount Sustainability."

That persistence has already paid off. Interface has pocketed more than $300 million in savings from energy efficiency and waste reduction. Anderson says without profits, it's hard to create any lasting change:

Anderson: Somebody once asked, "Exactly what do you expect to see from the top of Mount Sustainability?" I thought about it, and said what I really hope to see is I want to be looking down that mountain in all directions and see other companies climbing it right behind us. Because there's room for everybody at the top.

In Atlanta, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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