Online Extra: "Stop Destroying The Biosphere"

Ray Anderson of carpet-tile maker Interface explains his company's approach to business in the Second Industrial Revolution

At a recent screening of The Corporation in New York City, a slew of male models flitted through the theater lobby, passing trays of free-range turkey burgers, new potato blintzes, and rum popcorn. Outfitted in matching black pants, they wore identical black t-shirts emblazoned with the following quote: "Someday people like me will go to jail. Ray C. Anderson, Interface Inc."

The evening, hosted by Metropolis magazine on the eve of the film's New York debut at downtown art house Film Forum, was indeed an ode to Interface (IFSIA ) Chief Anderson -- he was hailed as the "heart and soul and hope of the world." The crowd was filled with luminaries from the design world, many of whom stayed on after the screening for the Q&A session with Anderson and the filmmakers.

Plenty of corporate heavyweights come under fire in this business-slamming documentary, including former Goodyear Tire (GT ) CEO Sam Gibara and former Shell CEO Sir Mark Moody-Stuart. But in Anderson's decade-old epiphany about the poisonous legacy he and his Atlanta-based company, the world's largest commercial carpet-tile maker, were leaving behind, the movie finds its mahatma.

Thus Anderson is perhaps the only Southern industrialist to be feted by New York's liberal design crowd. As well as one of the only corporate leaders adored by both consumer crusader Ralph Nader and Wall Street.

BusinessWeek's Social Issues Editor Michelle Conlin sat down with Anderson the day after the screening at Interface's New York offices on Park Avenue to discuss his thoughts on corporate responsibility. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: When they interviewed you, did the filmmakers share their thesis with you?

A:

No! Knowing that outcome, I probably wouldn't have agreed to the interview. They just told me that they wanted to talk to me about our environmental transformation at Interface.

Q: How did you feel when you saw the movie -- and yourself portrayed as the hero?

A:

It's embarrassing. I wouldn't have chosen to be elevated above my peers. Then again, I'm not complaining. It's been incredible publicity for us.

Q: Do you agree with film's argument? That corporations are psychopathic monsters that have too much power?

A:

It's a movie with a point of view. And the examples support that point of view. Not all corporations are inherently bad. Corporations, like anything, exist across a spectrum. So a lot of it is one-sided.

Q: You say you had an environmental epiphany 10 years ago. What prepared you for that?

A:

I think there were many things that set me up for that experience. But a big part of it was reading Kant when I was in my 30s. I was taken with idea of the categorical imperative, the notion that before you do anything, you should ask yourself: What if everyone else did this too? And I suppose when I entered what's my third stage of life, I began to think about my company and my legacy. What would this child of mine grow up to become?

Q: I heard you used to drive a Jag.

A:

Yes, I started out with a Cadillac. Then a Mercedes. Then I had a Bentley. Someone actually convinced me the Bentley was efficient! But I was the first person in Georgia to own a Toyota Prius. I beat Ted Turner! And I'll tell you, the moral superiority that comes from driving it -- it's great psychic income! Plus, I like my Prius more than all the rest.

Q: What's the most important part of the change that needs to occur for what you call a Second Industrial Revolution?

A:

One of the biggest things that needs to change is the educational system. Universities are still teaching a system to students that destroys the biosphere. Engineers still study combustion instead of fuel cells. They're coming out of school without a clue.

Q: Who should be leading this charge?

A:

Business and industry should be leading it because if they don't, we're all doomed. You can't have an economy that destroys the basic infrastructure. We need to stop destroying the biosphere.

Q: What about the government's role?

A:

The government is most influential in taxation. Now it's based on income because long ago Congress decided that was the easiest money. But I think we should stop taxing the good things, like income and real estate, and start taxing the bad things like fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. That would turn the tax world upside down. But in Europe, they're gradually moving in this direction.

Q: You speak around the world on these issues to other CEOs. Have any of them ever criticized you?

A:

Not to my face. Early on, everyone thought I was going over the deep end. But you can't argue with our results.

Q: Was there anything in The Corporation that you disagreed with?

A:

One thing I kept thinking about was the way the film blames the U.S. Constitution for giving corporations too much power. But if that's the case, then what's Canada's excuse? What's England's excuse? They aren't bound by the U.S. Constitution.

Q: You were a big supporter of the Kyoto protocol. Have you been disappointed by the corporate response in the U.S.?

A:

Let's put it this way. The Kyoto protocol called for companies to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 7% by 2012. And a lot of companies balked. They said it went overboard and that it would be way too expensive. Since 1994, we've slashed greenhouse gas emissions by 48%. We've slashed everything. And we've saved $231 million in the process.

The way we've all been doing business is completely environmentally unsustainable -- not to mention just wrong. If we continue this way, we'll all be committing suicide. We have to change from the extracting, wasteful, abusive system of the first Industrial Revolution to the waste-free and benign Second Industrial Revolution.

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