BY WARREN COHEN
Ray Anderson runs a publicly held billion-dollar carpeting company, Atlanta-based Interface Inc., and he has an odd confession: "I am a plunderer of the Earth. Someday people like me may be put in jail." The courtly 64-year-old Anderson says he is coming clean on his role in a corporate America that he believes consumes more than its share of the world's natural resources, contributes to global warming and industrial pollution, and leaves it to others to repair the damage.
"Business and industry . . . have to change, or we will take the Earth down with us," Anderson argues. He wants to run the nation's first totally sustainable green corporation. This, he says, is "the next industrial revolution." Anderson has no timetable, because some solutions haven't yet been invented: No one has discovered a safe, nonpetrochemical adhesive "backing" to hold nylon strands together. About 920 million square yards of carpet end up in landfills each year.
Anderson impresses one community that is often highly skeptical of big business: environmentalists. "Among the sea of companies moving in a constructive way, Ray stands out as being in the vanguard," says Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Anderson's epiphany came in 1994 after he read The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Since then, he has changed how Interface operates. Scrap has been cut by more than 60 percent, saving $ 67 million. Carpet tiles were redesigned to use less nylon, so the production process uses less energy.
His most radical idea is for Interface to stop selling carpet. Instead, he would lease carpet so he can control recycling. So far only four companies and government bodies have signed on, mainly because tax laws discourage carpet rental.
Anderson says Interface has a long way to go, but 1999 is promising. One factory in California will convert to solar power, and Interface will introduce "Project Amory," a new type of flooring that looks like carpet but can be mopped like vinyl. Every raw material will recycle, and there will be near-zero factory waste.
Though Anderson will cochair a national environmental summit in May, he thinks he can lead by example: "If we succeed here in this tiny industry, we can influence the huge companies and industries outside." But then, his environmental kindness only goes so far. He won't share Interface's innovations with rivals. "It's imperative that we succeed--but we're going to do so at the expense of our competitors."