A Green Giant

Author: P. Heistein 26-10-2018

A Green Giant

Who are the ‘Green Giants’ that got us thinking about sustainability? Perhaps: Rachael Carson (Silent Spring), Gro Haarlem Brundtland (Our Common Future), Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth), David Attenborough (Life on Earth), Neil Armstrong (the iconic picture of the earth taken from the moon) and Dennis Meadows (Club of Rome / Limits to Growth.) And maybe one could include Gandhi (the world has enough for every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.’)

These pioneers made us aware that we must all quickly change how we live and work. Our unbridled consumption of fossil fuels and animal-proteins, is destroying the air, ground and water on which people and wildlife depend for health and happiness. We must change our destructive economies and diets and move to renewable energy.

Standing squarely amongst these Green Giants, though far less known, is Ray Anderson (Mid-Course Correction.) Ray fills a unique role. While the other Giants deliver high-level global warnings and appeal to our moral responsibilities, Ray is the only one who directly names the big culprits – because he was one of them – and shows us by example how to reform them from the inside out. He is the only industrialist in the list and perhaps the only one who really understands business. He is the pathfinder and missing-link who closes the gap between intangible global issues and practical, everyday work and business.

Ray founded Interface in 1973 in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew to become the largest carpet tile manufacturer with plants in six countries and offices and showrooms in 40 countries. He was hard-working, created many jobs and was for thirty years a very successful entrepreneur and captain-of-industry. He was what many people call a role model. Yet Ray came to say of himself; ‘In the future, people like me will go to jail!’

What caused him to stop, wake up, see himself as a criminal and change course 180-degrees half-way though his highly successful career? He eloquently describes this in his first book ‘Mid-course Correction’ and in many good interviews and speeches after that. Here are a few links:

Interface was completely dependent on fossil hydrocarbons (nylon yarn and rubber) and fossil energy to manufacture her product. Her raw materials came out of the ground, were turned into carpet tiles, and went to landfill at the end of their life. Interface was a prime-time example of the linear Take-Make-Waste process on which the whole consumption economy is based. Ray was very successful at this economic-industrial model, but a book by Paul Hawken made him realise that his business model was fatally flawed. His Take-Make-Waste process at Interface was destroying the ecology on which our health and happiness depends.

Ray saw that, in the name of free-market enterprise, economic prosperity and the pursuit of ‘The American Dream’, business and industry were making profits by taking minerals out the earth and burning fossil fuels to make an endless stream of consumer goods, then dumping CO2 and other waste by-products into the atmosphere and landfills. They took the fruits but used the earth like an open sewer and left nature and society to pay the external costs of their operations. Advertisements enticed the consumer to buy more and more products so business and industry could keep on making them. But from an ecological viewpoint, the linear economic system that supports consumption and growth, are flawed and cannot be sustained. Ray knew then that Interface had to change. But how could he make a deep and radical transformation in his business while at the same time remaining competitive and maintaining profits? He couldn’t let his business die during the transformation or it would all be for nothing. How Ray succeeded in changing the DNA in his fossil-dependent company, is one of the great stories in sustainability and makes him a Green Giant like no other. He walked-the-talk with his own pocket and showed it can be done.

Ray had his Damascus moment with the Hawken book then went further than any other industrial business to achieve Mission Zero, where Interface would have no more detrimental effect on the environment. This required the company to ‘climb Everest’ and get the hearts and minds of every employee aligned to that task. And then also his customers and the whole supply chain of which Interface is part. Every part of the operation was evaluated and reinvented with the goal of zero harm. He reached upstream and downstream of his own operation and took responsibility for everything from the cradle to the grave of his product. Amongst other things, Interface developed cutters that sliced carpet rolls into tiles with zero waste. They spent twelve years developing a unique recycling machine that could take waste carpet tiles at the end of their useful life, and decompose them into virgin components that can be used again. Interface even helped all their suppliers to develop their own sustainable chains. Every step in the Interface product and business chain was optimised and reinvented to eliminate harm to the environment.

However, this mammoth task also delivered huge savings in waste reduction and costs which, by doing it carefully, outweighed the risks of the transformation. There was for Interface a positive business case in ‘going green’ and that was Ray’s enormous contribution to sustainability. He showed you can make profits by doing good.

If Ray could achieve Mission Zero in Interface, a company that was 100% dependent on fossils, then it can be done in any company. Unfortunately, Ray died of cancer in 2011 before he reached the summit. But to many people, he was a Moses who went up the mountain and came back to show how business and industry need to live and work, if we want to leave our children a healthy planet. He turned the Take-Make-Waste model into a circle. Ray’s competitors now try to copy Interface. Many other businesses preach sustainability and write glossy Corporate-Social-Responsibility reports full of greenwash. But Ray is the Green Giant who really did it.

I have spoken with Neil Armstrong and Ray Anderson and seen others like Al Gore on stage. Every one of them is an ordinary person and undoubtedly has many of the same human failings that we all have. But what sets them apart is: they are people with a mission. They burn inside with something they feel they must share with us. The message is bigger than the man and they bring to the surface issues about our lives and planet that are real and of deep concern. They resonate far and wide and leave us with a legacy.

Ray will be a hard act to follow at Interface. Perhaps like Steve Jobs is a hard act to follow at Apple, or Jack Welch at GE. Can any new business leader have the same vision and drive as the pioneer who made the company unique and great? Will he be a caretaker and consolidator, or a builder and expander? Does the new leader live for himself, his shareholders and his bonus, or will he carry on the bigger message and do good for society and for nature? Business and industry perhaps shape the world we live in, longer and deeper than politicians do. Political leaders make history (Lee Kwan Yew, Thatcher, Deng, Mandela, Xi Jinping) but even they do not leave a long-lasting silent legacy that big companies leaves with their products. The Take-Make-Waste companies leave in their wakes, a changed atmosphere full of CO2, and soils permanently scarred with toxins and mine dumps, and seas full of plastics. Their dark corporate shadows stretch down over many generations. Ray too, was on his way to leaving our children with landfills full of carpet tiles. But he saw the light and decided to clean up his act. He gives us comfortable offices and homes without the ecological downsides. That benefit, the absence of harm, though unseen, will remain long after the politicians of his time have blown away.

For the sake of future generations, business and industry must transform their harmful Take-Make-Waste models into benign, closed circles. There is not a day to waste and – after Interface – no excuse to delay. Thanks Ray!

The Central Bureau of Statistics shows that Dutch energy companies and industry are far and away the biggest CO2-emitters in The Netherlands. Despite Kyoto and Paris, their emissions in 2016 were the highest ever recorded. Clearly, Dutch companies must go to Scherpenzeel to visit Interface to get a new mindset and learn about sustainability.


AFTERTHOUGHTS – for those who are interested in sustainability,  business and ethics.

One:  A grain of sand versus the iceberg  Many people would say that ‘improving the world’ is a hopeless quest and doomed to failure, ridicule and disillusionment. But if the world is heading for the ecological abyss, carrying our own children with it, do you say; ‘I can’t do anything about it, my kids will have to fend for themselves,’ and give up? Or do you at least try to change things, though you are only one grain of sand on the beach, and hope this influences those other grains close to you? We each have a steering wheel in our hands. This works for one day (today) and for one person (yourself.) So, if one wants to change the world, that’s the place to start, with your own grain of sand. It’s ‘The power of one’; the rest you have no control over.

Only one in a thousand Dutch men or women knows that the insect population in The Netherlands has declined by 70-90% in the last 30 years. They cannot see the writing on the wall saying, ‘Mass Extinction is Underway!’ They go about their daily business unaware of the urgency. Some people think the government or municipality will act, if there is anything citizens need to be concerned about. But what if you the government and municipal workers are also blind? What should you then do if, standing on the bow of the ship, you realise the iceberg in the mist is coming closer?

Two:  The legacy lives on  In 2009, One Planet was invited to a business reception at the Interface factory in Scherpenzeel. The tall auditorium was filled with a few hundred guests, many of them bankers from Amsterdam in immaculate suits. Ray Anderson was by now acquiring an international reputation. We were all curious to see and hear the man. It was a hot summer afternoon. To save energy, Interface used less airco than other businesses, and allowed the inside temperature to partially follow the outside weather (allowing a few degrees more bandwidth can save over half the energy required for air conditioning.) Ray came on stage. He took off his own tie and invited all the guests to take off theirs. Because of the way he did this, even the stiff and formal bankers relaxed, shed their ties, dropped their reserve, took on a smile and turned into boys.

Ray then gave a great speech about the transformation of Interface and their quest for Mission Zero. After this, when the guests were mingling in the hall, an Interface employee pulled me by the sleeve and said Ray Anderson wanted to say hello. This was a surprise. I was the smallest fish in the pond, so I humbly followed the assistant. I was even more surprised when Ray – whom I had never seen before – called me by my first name, put his arms around me and gave me a good hug! He then invited me to have a private dinner with him, along with three other guests including the architect Thomas Rau. At the end of the evening, Ray gave me a lift back to my train station in his taxi. As I stepped out of the car, thanked him and said goodbye, I suddenly got a feeling that pioneers like Ray, perhaps pay a price in loneliness. Ray must have been on the road for so many days each year, participating in endless meetings, giving speeches, inspiring people to climb the long and difficult path up Mount Everest. He must always keep up his drive. But for the leader who must always stay two steps ahead of his troops, the nights must be lonely.

Not long after that, when I looked up Ray on one of his new TED-talks, I was shocked to see him struggling for breath on the podium. The ageing lion was battling with cancer. A while later, it felled him. From Interface I then received a nice poster of Ray sitting in front of his nylon spinning machines. I mounted this poster on the wall at One Planet, to bring inspiration to the meeting room where so many project discussions about sustainability were held. Unfortunately, both these posters got taken by the fire that engulfed our building in 2012.

The fire did not, however, destroy the reject carpet tiles that One Planet received earlier as a gift from Interface. These were leftover tiles of all types and colours from their factory in Scherpenzeel. When spread randomly on the floor at One Planet, they gave a nice effect. I have now reused these same carpet tiles in four different locations, each time One Planet moved to a new office. Although Ray’s poster is gone, consumed by the fire, his carpet tiles live on. I think One Planet will reuse them forever. But if for some reason they are no longer serviceable, I will take them back to Scherpenzeel to put into their unique 100% recycling machine.

In this way Ray’s legacy lives on at One Planet in his carpet tiles!

Three: Investments without ethics. Ray had one great advantage that many other captains of industry perhaps don’t have. That worries me, because it casts doubt about the scalability of his wonderful example. Because Ray was the founder and owner of Interface, he could follow his heart and conscience. He could transform Interface into the sustainable company he wanted it to be. As the major shareholder, he was voting with his own wallet. But what about the bosses of big utilities, oil, coal, chemical, mining and all the other Take-Make-Waste industries and other polluters? These bosses do not own their companies. They have pension funds and shareholders sitting in their necks, demanding that the CEO pays out robust quarterly dividends, or his bonus and share options will be axed. Shareholders want short-term returns. These CEO’s do not have the freedom that Ray had, to take the long-term view and do well by doing good. Pension funds are notorious for being ethically blind; they will invest in anything that produces a good ROI, even if that requires investing in coal, oil, weapons or tobacco. Investment decisions are made by geeks who watch graphs on screens. They have no emotions about carpets ending up in landfills. Pensioners therefore have no idea how their fund managers are investing their savings. Those pensioners have no idea they are silently participating in business practices that are destroying the world for the dear grandchildren they hold in their arms.

I wonder if Ray could have achieved Mission Zero if too many external investors had been on the board with him?

Four: little Green Giants  Some Green Giants work internationally – Al Gore, Ray Anderson, David Attenborough. But for each of these there are many more smaller Green Giants working at national or local level. Like the Serengeti food chain requires creatures of all sizes, these people are every bit as important at the international figures. People like

These people walk the talk and live for an ideal that is greater than the pursuit of only money and material success. Their ideal is the same one One Planet exists for; which is to change how we live and work so that our children and all living things, can inherit a healthy planet.

Five: does business have a conscience or is it greenwashing? To many Dutch people and especially the current liberal government, big business and industry are ‘Holy Cows.’ They are called the ‘motors of the economy’ that bring us jobs. They help The Netherlands to compete in the world and hold its head high – Shell, Unilever, Philips, University of Wageningen, ING, Rabobank, Campina, Essent, Arcadis, Heineken, Schiphol, the port of Rotterdam, AkzoNobel, ArcelorMittal etcetera. Because of this, business and industry are given a wide license to operate, even if they are not environmentally friendly. The government offers tax and legal incentives to get big foreign corporations to settle here (Ikea, Starbucks, ArcelorMittal.) It does all it can to make Holland ‘business-friendly’ and the economy counts above all else. Many citizens feel this has gone too far. The tail is now wagging the dog. Business is the real power behind the face of government.

But even if industry pollutes our environment and we complain about it, as employees, customers and pensioners, we share in the crumbs of these corporations and encourage them through our purchasing habits. We might criticise big oil, coal and tobacco, but so long as we continue to buy their products, we keep them alive with our wallets. Therefore, the chain of environmental responsibility starts with us as consumers. If we stop listening to advertisements and change how we spent our money and raise our voices, big business will quickly change how it operates. I have seen at first-hand how sensitive big businesses are, to their reputations being questioned. A group of determined citizens can achieve big results, if they are determined and well organised. Here’s an example:

I worked ten years for the biggest energy utility company of The Netherlands. We supplied over 35% of all electricity and gas. Our coal-fired power stations produced 17% of all CO2-emissions. To improve our image and make money from the growing sentiment for green energy,  the company started importing massive amounts of biomass from all parts of the world. This was pulverised and fed into the power stations along with the coal. This energy was then sold to the public as ‘climate-neutral environmentally friendly green energy.’ This biomass included; coconut husks from India, wood-pallets from South Africa, wood chips from Canada and coffee husks from Kenya. It also included palm oil imported from Indonesia. Huge piles of biomass accumulated in the port of Rotterdam and was then railed to our coal-fired power stations throughout The Netherlands.

Of course, even a child knows it is not correct to ship biomass from other parts of the world to burn in The Netherlands, then call this ‘environmentally responsible energy.’  But while the destruction of biomass by burning is obviously harmful to nature, it was not against the law. Under  the rules of the EU and the Dutch government, biomass counted as ‘green energy.’ This weakness in the law allowed our marketing department to gain 2,4 million clients. We were the leading supplier of ‘green’ energy in the country. Most people at home have no idea where their electricity and gas comes from or how it is made. Like water; electricity just comes out of the socket, Behind that lies an invisible network. The waste products from your toilet and central heating unit disappear invisibly into the air or the sewer system. The municipality looks after it and you pay your rates and taxes and forget about the matter. Most consumers know very little about the energy supply chain. They rely government to step in if false claims are made about green energy. They live in great naivety, with little insight into the production process behind the goods and services they buy.

One day when I was at work at the energy utility, I saw twelve protesters from a Dutch NGO called MilieuDefence, circling peacefully in white suits with protest placards, outside the front entrance of our Head Office in Arnhem. I was curious and went to ask them what they were doing. They said they were protesting against the import and burning of palm-oil by our company. I was delighted, told them quietly to keep up the good work, and went back to my desk to watch how the protest would develop. (Don’t worry; I’m not a complete coward; later I put my own job on the line for another climate action.) The protest outside our front door got coverage in the newspapers. Two  days later our company stopped all use of palm-oil. This was for me a very good lesson; the naming and shaming of corporations really does work!

I cannot believe the directors of my utility company were not aware of the terrible damage that their use of imported palm-oil caused to the rain forests of Borneo, or the effect of removing massive amounts of coffee husks from the plantations in Kenya. Biomass is never a waste product. It should decompose at source and regenerate the local soil it comes from. Like Ray Anderson said, ‘In the future people like me will go to jail!’ My company was not only the biggest emitter of CO2 in The Netherlands, we were also destroying the biomass and soils of other countries!


In an effort to improve our public image, our utility became the biggest sponsor of WWF Netherlands. WWF was working to save the polar bear. Yet they were sponsored by the biggest emitter of CO2, which melted the ice those polar bears lived on. Ray Anderson had his ‘Damascus moment’ and changed course 180 degrees. I wonder if our utility directors, now retired on good pensions, ever reflect on their deeds in the past?

Six: Who is responsible? Holland is a small, crowded and intensively-used country. There are no more easy places to dump or hide unwanted toxic materials, like fly-ash from power stations and old tyres from cars and trucks. The producers of these unwanted wastes have been quietly burying their materials under highways and under sports fields. Now citizens are starting to question these practices and are demanding groundwater samples to see if chemicals are leaching out into the ditches and groundwater around these fields. However, many municipalities have no proper records of where toxic materials have been buried in the past. In 2017, disposal contractors have been spreading pelletised tyres on top of the artificial grass of children’s football fields “to make the ground softer in case children fall.” But recently these pellets were suspected of being carcinogenic. Now children and parents have boycotted these sports fields. Cases appeared on television. Municipalities have been caught red-faced for letting this happen. The municipalities involved excused themselves by saying that it was nowhere stated that spreading rubber pellets on soccer fields was against the rules. In the end, no-one takes the blame for environmental damage. When things like this are exposed, the authorities just agree to “move forwards” and formulate new rules.

It’s always a cat-and-mouse game on the environment. Business and industry will push their boundaries to the edge of the law. Then government reacts afterwards if something goes wrong and tries to plug the grey areas. There are few ethical businesses and industries with leaders of moral fibre like Ray Anderson who will say; even if this is within the law, what we are doing is nonsense and I’m going to stop my criminal practices!

One last ethics-twister: because there is no place left for landfills, Holland has built huge incinerators to burn waste. But Dutch citizens have started reducing and recycling more waste, so there is now an overcapacity in these big industrial incinerators. The businesses that own and run the incinerator want to keep their plants burning at full capacity.  Holland now import toxic wastes from countries like Italy and Ierland to burn in this tiny country. The operators originally got permits from the Dutch government to construct incinerators of a certain capacity, so if the government now tried to reduce the burning of waste, the owners would sue the government for lost profits. The argument is even given by the owners that Dutch incinerators are cleaner and more efficient than waste disposal facilities in Italy, so they are actually helping the EU to keep clean! This all proves that; unethical businessmen and naïve government officials, are a bad combination! It proves what Ray Anderson said; the big environmental criminals are business and industry, driven by short-term profits.

Seven: Be careful how you feed the tiger  For me, three books symbolise the deep and tricky debate about sustainability. The first book is Limits to Growth in 1972 by Dennis Meadows. The second is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Both these books are classics in their field and have recently undergone 30-year updates. Both books are as relevant to the debate now as they were back then.

These books are two sides of the same coin. Richard Dawkins explains why man is genetically programmed to be selfish and will always try to take more than his fair share of resources. If he is more successful at hoarding resources than his neighbour, he will be more attractive as a mate and have more children than his neighbour. Under the skin of modern society, we are all driven by the laws of biology and survival. Success in spreading ones own genes is the only objective biological measure of success. Every cell of our body is designed to maximise performance in the reproductive task.

On the other hand, Dennis Meadows explains in Limits to Growth how mans’ selfish drive will lead to an apocalyptic Malthusian calamity if we allow our individual genes to go unchecked. These two books are therefore locked in a titanic conflict. They are flip sides of the same coin.

In this struggle, a third and much newer book rises above both earlier books and offers what is perhaps, our only glimmer of hope. This is Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature from 2011. Pinker relies on statistics to show that mankind appears to be developing a collective common sense, whereby we all realise though a process of enlightened selfishness, that our own individual genes are better served through cooperation with the tribe. Our own selfish genes survive best, when we are kind and considerate to others. Maybe this is the message that finally integrates the two opposing titanic forces? It’s the same message as Ray’s ‘Doing well by doing good.’

In conclusion, it means that The Golden Rule, meaning “do unto others as you want them to do unto you”, is also the smartest biological strategy to maximise the survival of our own selfish genes. Cooperation with others is the best way to ensure that our children and all other living things, can have a happy future. But to do this, we need to keep the dangerous tigers of business and industry, firmly confined to their cages. Business and industry, owned by private investors, have no conscience. They are ethically blind and are driven to support the interests of shareholders who do not have the same interests as citizens. This means that every citizen must shoulder his and her own responsibility, and spend his or her pennies very wisely. We must all choose very carefully what to buy, because it is our purchasing habits that feed the tiger.