With that epiphany, he decided that it was not all about business as usual. Twenty-five years after founding the carpet-making company Interface in Troup County, he developed an environmental vision that echoes far beyond the industry. His goal – eliminate any negative impact on the environment.
As an early proponent of sustainability, the West Point native described in 1997 his vision for his company: “If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well … very well … by doing good. That’s the vision.”
With that, he kicked off Mission Zero, a campaign to change the way his global company operated by redesigning its products and processes, developing new technologies, and working to eliminate or reduce waste and harmful emissions while increasing its use of renewable materials and sources of energy. The target date to reach those goals is 2020, and the company is well on the way to reaching them.
But Anderson wasn’t content just to have his company become “green.” As the grandfather of sustainability, this poet-laureate of industrial ecology set out to convince other industrial leaders that it was good sense – and good business – to follow his lead.He gave countless speeches each year, keeping the message of sustainable business in the spotlight. His efforts to spread the word led to countless honors from government, environmental and business groups nationally and internationally, as well as those closer to home, earning recognition from LaGrange College, the Georgia Conservancy and, on Saturday, an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Georgia Tech.
As he sought to merge economy and ecology in the business world, Anderson set the tone in his personal life as well, driving a Prius and living in an off-the-electrical-grid home.
Despite his international acclaim, Anderson didn’t forget his roots. He often finished his speeches with a poem written by an Interface employee who was inspired after hearing Anderson describe his environmental vision. And he encouraged his employees to become involved in their community and serve it through volunteering.
Anderson had a long relationship with LaGrange College, serving as a trustee and a member of the President’s Advisory Council. He was an active champion of the school’s sustainability efforts and was on campus last fall to sign copies of his latest book. The signing was held, fittingly, in the college’s Frank and Laura Lewis Library, a LEED-certified facility, recognized for being built with an eye on stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.
Anderson has been hailed for his vision, inspiration, passion, humanity, generosity and grace. In 2004, he said, “There is no such thing yet in terms of zero footprint. What you can do is demonstrate reduced footprint.” He was speaking of the business world and its effects on the planet, of course. But on a personal level, Anderson made a giant footprint on his community, his company and the world – a footprint that should endure for generations to come.