Ray Anderson, 77, often called the “greenest CEO in America” for his crusade to turn his billion-dollar carpet company into an environmentally sustainable enterprise, died Aug. 8 at his home in Atlanta. He had liver cancer.
Mr. Anderson was the founder of Interface, the largest producer of commercial carpet tiles. For 20 years, he ran the business in compliance with government regulations but never thought much about the environment.
Then, in 1994, he read Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce,” which gave him a new understanding of how business practices could damage the environment.
“It was like a spear in the chest,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I was convicted as a plunderer of the Earth.”
From that point forward, Mr. Anderson preached environmentalism with the conviction of a convert. He pursued what he called “Mission Zero”: to make Interface fully sustainable by 2020 through the use of recycled materials and renewable energy sources.
“It’s not often that you have a corporate CEO who is as committed to environmental issues or more than those of us in the environmental movement itself,” said Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute. “I don’t think any other corporation has come close to doing what he has done.”
Mr. Anderson founded his Georgia-based carpet business in 1973. He had seen modular carpet in England and thought that the concept would appeal to practical Americans. Easy to install, the tiles could be replaced one at a time as they wore out. They also suited the modern American office, with its shifting cubicles and proliferating wires and cords to accommodate.
“I fell in love with the idea,” he told the Journal-Constitution. “It just made so much sense.”
The problem, as Mr. Anderson would come to see it, was that carpet production was highly destructive to the environment. It required enormous amounts of petroleum and left behind mountains of unrecyclable waste.
A prolific speechmaker, Mr. Anderson emphasized that the changes he had made since the 1990s did not cost him money — that, in fact, they saved his company hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I always make the business case for sustainability,” he told the New York Times. “It’s so compelling. Our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they have ever been. . . . And the goodwill in the marketplace — it’s just been astonishing.”
Ray Christie Anderson was born July 28, 1934, in West Point, Ga., the son of the town postmaster and a schoolteacher. He and his two brothers grew up in the Depression-era South, but Mr. Anderson never recalled his childhood as one of deprivation.
When he bragged about snagging catfish big enough to feed a family for a week, it was not to say that the family was poor, but rather that the water of the Chattahoochee River was good.
Mr. Anderson received a football scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he graduated in 1956 with a degree in industrial engineering. Sports, he said, taught him to compete.
One of his first jobs was selling fireworks. By his early 20s, he had settled on carpet.
His first marriage, to Harriet “Sug” Childs, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Pat Adams Anderson of Atlanta; two daughters from his first marriage, Mary Anne Lanier of Marietta, Ga., and Harriet Langford of LaGrange, Ga.; a stepson, Brian Rainey of Atlanta; one brother; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
Critics on the left pointed out that Mr. Anderson did go on profiting from a business that, for all his efforts, had not yet achieved “Mission Zero.” On the right, they said that the free market on its own would eventually lead to a cleaner environment.
Mr. Anderson stood his ground, or at least his carpet.
“I’m also an industrialist and an entrepreneur and as competitive as anybody you’re likely to know,” he told the Financial Post in 2005. “I’m still a plunderer, but only two-thirds as much as I was.”