• Credit: Brooks Kraft/CORBIS

Ray C. Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., passed away on Aug. 8, after a 20-month battle with cancer. Surrounded by his family, he died at his home in Atlanta, announced Interface president and CEO Dan Hendrix. Anderson was 77.

An honors graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering in 1956, Anderson founded Interface in 1973 to produce the nation’s first free-lay carpet tiles. He may best be remembered, however, for his environmental epiphany in 1994. That year, he read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, which he likened to a “spear in the chest.” He thereafter began to reexamine the company’s environmental impact.

As noted on Interface’s website, Anderson recalled that “In 1994, at age 60 and in my company’s 22nd year, I steered Interface on a new course—one designed to reduce our environmental footprint while increasing our profits. I wanted Interface, a company so oil-intensive you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry, to be the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable—to shut down the smokestacks, close off its effluent pipes, to do no harm to the environment and take nothing not easily renewed by the earth. Believe me when I say the goal is one enormous challenge.”

Three years later, Anderson further described his vision for the company as such: “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.” Under Anderson’s leadership, the company created Mission Zero, a promise to eliminate any negative environmental impact from the company by 2020, through the redesign of processes and products, the pioneering of technologies, and efforts to reduce or eliminate waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy. The company’s progress toward this goal can be tracked online at interfaceglobal.com/Sustainability/Our-Progress.aspx.

As of 2010, eight of Interface’s nine factories were operating with 100 percent renewable electricity, and 30 percent of the company’s total energy use was from renewable sources. Total energy use at global factories was down 43 percent per unit of product since 1996. The greenhouse gas emissions from global manufacturing operations has been reduced by 35 percent from a 1996 baseline. Since 1996, total waste to landfills from Interface carpet factories has been reduced by 76 percent.

In 1996, Anderson received the inaugural Millennium Award from Global Green, presented by Mikhail Gorbachev, and won recognition from Forbes Magazine and Ernst & Young, which named him Entrepreneur of the Year. In January 2001, he received the George and Cynthia Mitchell International Prize for Sustainable Development. He also was honored by the Georgia Conservancy, Southface Energy Institute, the U.S. Green Building Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Design Futures Council, and the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition, among other organizations.

Anderson transitioned from day-to-day management of Interface to non-executive chairman in 2001, and spent the next 10 years focusing his time and energy on the business case for sustainability, delivering more than 1,000 speeches and authoring two books on the topic: Mid-Course Correction (1998) and Confessions of a Radical Industrialist (2009). In 2007, Time magazine named him a “Hero of the Environment.”

"Not only did Interface and the world lose a great man today, but I lost a friend and mentor,” Hendrix said in a press release. “Ray's iconic spirit and pioneering vision are not only his legacy, but our future. We will honor Ray by keeping his vision alive and the company on course."

Interface manufacturers and markets carpet under the InterfaceFLOR, FLOR, Heuga, and Bentley Prince Street brands. Industry colleagues are invited to leave comments on Anderson's legacy on his blog at raycandersonblog.com.