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Doing Well by Doing Good — Remembering Ray Anderson

The people in military and civil service who are making the President's goals a reality have Ray Anderson's example to thank for making the path a little clearer.

The Federal Government is among the organizations that Ray Anderson's work has informed and inspired. President Obama's Executive Order 13514 challenges the Federal Government to lead by example, and to live up to its responsibilities as our Nation's single largest energy consumer. The people in military and civil service who are making the President's goals a reality – myself included – have Ray Anderson's example, and the examples of many others, to thank for making the path a little clearer.

Ray Anderson's vision for making the $1.1 billion global carpet tile company he founded the first sustainable company in the world set a highwater mark for corporate sustainability and gave a new generation of American business leaders a model of a social enterprise – how to do well by doing good. I know it first-hand: Ray Anderson taught me the business case for sustainability.

I grew up in LaGrange, Georgia, less than 10 miles from Interface's first carpet tile plant. I never thought I'd end up back there after grad school, but I did, and I’m very grateful it was working for him.

It was shortly after Ray had read The Ecology of Commerce, and been so inspired that he made it Interface Inc.'s mission to become a sustainable company – taking nothing, doing no harm. "Climbing Mt. Sustainability," as he called it, began with a war on waste. And waste, by the way, was defined as "any cost that [Interface] incurred that does not add value to our customer and that translates to doing everything right the first time, every time."

That was about 1995, and even then you could tour any Interface manufacturing plant, and whether you were talking to the plant manager or a second shift tufting machine operator, he or she could tell you exactly how their work connected to sustainability and quality for the customer.

Of course the war on waste was just the beginning. Ray challenged the company to redesign products to use less material and last longer, reengineer processes to use less energy and water, and create a recycling program that used old carpet to create new products instead of sending it to a landfill as trash.

But what did it do for Interface's bottom line, and for their shareholders? Ray described it this way: "Our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they have ever been. Our people are motivated by a shared higher purpose — esprit de corps to die for. And the goodwill in the marketplace — it's just been astonishing."

As a young person who'd always been passionate about the environment but didn't know how to connect it with my profession, seeing how Ray's vision transformed a company from the inside showed me how to marry profit with purpose.

His influence, of course, didn't end with Interface. His evangelical zeal for using his company's success as a demonstration that green business is good business led him around the world as leading advocate for corporate sustainability and helped to inspire a green building movement that is creating better, more efficient places to live, work, and go to school in communities around the world. Ray Anderson may have passed on August 8 of this year, but his legacy will continue to grow.

Michelle Moore is Federal Environmental Executive at the White House Council on Environmental Quality