Ray Anderson is a lovely man. He takes risks and does so intelligently. He follows his heart and can clearly, passionately articulate where it is leading him. He can articulate in terms that are sufficiently inspiring and sufficiently broad a direction in which groups can travel, and those skills allowed him to play a small and unusually visible role in the transformation of Interface and of a steadily growing sector of our economy.
But in a way Ray is also dangerous. He is dangerous because he has become so visible that our movement could risk looking at him and scribbling down the wrong lessons. Ray isn’t just a person, he’s a narrative, and in that narrative lies the danger. It is a narrative that’s both powerful and dangerous because it is transformational and epic. A man- a plunderer- goes through a dramatic internal struggle. He emerges from the turmoil deeply humbled and driven. He finds masters who can train him. They teach him to see the world in a powerful new light, and with their guidance he achieves the impossible. It’s the plot of The Matrix, and it’s all true.
The danger is that we will look at this narrative and try to emulate it. It is tempting to look at Ray’s story and conclude that this is how the business case for sustainability has developed. We could mistakenly convince ourselves that Ray’s transformation is the secret to understanding Ray, Ray is the secret to understand the transformation of Interface, and the transformation of Interface is the secret to understanding the transformation of our economy. We could emerge a bunch of little Ray Andersons seeking to reproduce Ray’s spiritual transformation in those around us, especially those in power. We might begin to treat sustainability as a religion, focusing on whether on not people “get it” rather than how actively they are contributing to the discussion. And innovative, challenging, diverse discussion is what we desperately need. Conformity is unsustainable.
I’m ready to take another look at Interface, not as the Raytrix but as a dynamic discussion that wins, fails, and struggles. Executive buyin is important, and executive championship is ideal, but it’s not where the business case comes from. Tell me about the activists who pressured Interface’s customers and got that book on Ray’s desk. Tell me what happens when a group of smart, eccentric (and therefore somewhat ego-driven) experts in a lot of things that aren’t carpet clash with a bunch of carpet designers and engineers who think they know their job, because that’s the primordial soup where the business case for sustainability is born. Tell me what happens when the sales force puts up resistance because customers want to buy carpet and not a service. Tell me how the business case evolves, how it meets with that resistance, listens, and adapts to become stronger.
To be perfectly clear here, my critique is of the way that Ray Anderson is talked about, not of the man himself. If we spend too much time celebrating his leadership we may forget to celebrate the other important stories from Interface. How did they achieve that radical resource efficiency? Through a program called QUEST, “Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions and Teamwork.” Under QUEST, “Rather than hold each facility to generic guidelines, individual Interface facilities are encouraged to discover ways to reduce waste that are unique to them.” Interface succeeded because of a combination of visionary, top-down leadership and passionate, relentless, bottom-up innovation. Ray could just as easily be the subplot to an incredible victory by the people at Interface. Let’s make sure to tell that story too.