From Plunderer To Protector
Six minutes into the new business-slamming documentary, The Corporation, an imperial-looking CEO flashes onto the screen. The lines of his suit are crisply creased, his hair freshly snipped. A classic black background frames the scene as he speaks in the sumptuous baritone befitting a modern industrialist. Sitting in the audience, you sense the executive must be in for a 60 Minutes-style scorching. After all, The Corporation, the latest in this summer's barrage of anti-Establishment documentaries, argues that companies fit the clinical definition of psychopaths: self-absorbed, deceptive, and incapable of maintaining enduring relationships.
But the man in the starched shirt is Ray C. Anderson, founder and now chairman of Atlanta-based Interface Inc. (IFSIA ), the world's largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile. Instead of being portrayed as the unrepentant spewer of greenhouse gases that the publicly-traded company once was, Interface, as well as Anderson, turn out to be The Corporation's heroes. "I realized the way of the CEO is the way of the plunderer," Anderson says as he stares into the camera, recalling his decade-old epiphany. "Someday people like me will go to jail."
The Canadian-produced film, which won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and opened on June 30 in Manhattan, argues that multinationals are to modern life what the Church was to the Middle Ages: monolithic institutions that self-righteously pursue their agendas. Companies are unsustainable "doom machines" that create great wealth but also great harm. By sanctioning their free rein, the film posits, society is practicing intergenerational tyranny: Let the kids clean up the mess.
As it plays in art houses across the country this $2-a-gallon summer, many believe The Corporation's message will resonate. Sentiment toward business is at record lows, according to Paul A. Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business who has studied the issue for 20 years. "Enough people with powerful voices are out there arguing about this stuff that it's something companies and CEOs need to think seriously about," says Argenti.
Making appearances are left-wing pundits such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Howard Zinn, as well as free-market heavies such as former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (GT ) CEO Sam Gibara, management guru Peter F. Drucker, and conservative economist Milton Friedman. But it's Anderson who is the movie's mahatma.
The story of his transformation from Bentley-driving industrialist to earth-embracing hybrid evangelist (he's on his second Toyota (TM ) Prius) began 10 years ago at Interface's Atlanta headquarters. Interior designers peppered the company with questions about the dangers in the materials and processes it was using.
At the time, environmentalism was a foreign language to Anderson. So he convened a task force to answer his customers' questions. The members then turned around and asked him to deliver a speech to the company on his environmental vision. "But I had no vision, absolutely none," he says.
He searched desperately for inspiration and found it in the form of Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. The book argues that most manufacturing companies gnaw through the earth's limited resources without regard to the poisonous legacy they often leave behind. "It was like a spear in my chest," Anderson recalls. "That's the way I had been running my company. Taking something that wasn't mine."
He pledged that, by 2020, Interface would be a completely sustainable company, producing no dangerous waste, no harmful emissions, and using not a drop of oil. So far, the company is a third of the way there (table).
Does Anderson agree with the filmmakers that companies are psychopaths? "I think they had a thesis and used extreme examples to prove it," he says diplomatically. Do companies have too much power? "Probably," he hedges. Should CEOs see the film? Here, he's emphatic. "Absolutely." The Corporation is a mirror, he says. The point for CEOs, he adds, is to see if they recognize themselves in it -- and, if they do, to change.
By Michelle Conlin in New York