GuestMay 31, 2022 AATCC Newsletter

Ray C. Anderson’s legacy as a champion of textile sustainability continues to have value today.

Making textile sustainability a priority isn’t easy. Textile companies have struggled to implement sustainable development principles into the creation of their products, which can involve major changes in manufacturing practices. This encompasses all aspects of the supply chain and includes end-of-life (EOL) disposal.

The drive towards textile product sustainability began to take shape in the early 1990s, although the basic concept has been around for much longer. The modern definition was created by a UN committee’s report in 1987. Sustainable development was defined as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Origins

A carpet industry CEO, Ray C. Anderson of Interface, Atlanta, GA, USA, answered the call for more sustainable carpet industry business practices. When he founded the company in 1973, Anderson realized the potential of manufacturing and selling carpet tiles. His business grew and became highly successful.

Ray C. Anderson of Interface

Then, in 1994, he encountered questions about what his company was doing to protect the environment, leading to his “spear in the chest” epiphany and “mid-course correction.” After reading Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson realized that his company and industry was causing great environmental harm. This led him on a quest to design and implement radical manufacturing and marketing strategies, making Interface a pioneer in sustainable development practices. His success, against all odds, made him a champion of textile sustainability.

Sadly, Anderson passed away in 2011. I had the privilege of hearing him speak at the Synthetic Yarn and Fabric Association’s (SYFA) Winter Conference in 2008. He also gave a TED talk in 2009, entitled “The Business Logic of Sustainability.” He endowed the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, which, after his death, has preserved his legacy and implemented new initiatives that expand on his vision.

The Foundation

John A. Lanier, Executive Director of the Foundation and Anderson’s grandson, shared experiences about his grandfather. I asked what inspired him most about Anderson’s passion for making sustainability a core pillar of corporate policy and its implementation.

“What impressed me most came down to his moral courage as a visionary. Given the paradigm he worked in, he risked everything he built to make his company a leader in sustainable business practices,” Lanier said. “The conventional wisdom of the time was that ‘you cannot choose both profitability and environmental responsibility.’ But Ray rejected that…and ended up being proven correct. Interface became a more profitable enterprise.”

His most memorable story about his grandfather was when he asked him, if he had a magic wand, what one environmental problem would he solve? Anderson replied, “climate change.” That was all the way back in 2004.

group of people standing on the porch of a building

The Ray Anderson Foundation and Anderson family celebrate the 2019 “Ray Day.”

Connie Hensler, global director environmental management and product stewardship at Interface, has been with the company for 29 years. She saw the company’s transition from the very beginning. What struck her at that time, after Anderson’s epiphany, was his “heartfelt devastation, learning what damage the industry was causing to the environment.

It really brought tears to my eyes at that meeting. That was the beginning of the journey.”

She continued, “And I think what continued to inspire me was this amazing power that was unleashed by giving people [in the company] the opportunity to do good things for the environment.”

Hensler stressed the importance of finding business partners who share the same ability to put sustainability principles into practice. Interface sends used carpet yarn for recycling to Aquafil. They then return recycled nylon 6 yarns to Interface for use in new carpet tiles.

Mount Sustainability

To accomplish the goal of creating a sustainable enterprise, Anderson proposed ascending the seven faces of “Mount Sustainability:”

  1. Eliminate all forms of waste.
  2. All emissions must be benign.
  3. Use renewable resources for energy production.
  4. Create closed-loop manufacturing practices based on circular economy found in nature.
  5. Provide the most resource-efficient transportation of products and people as possible.
  6. Sensitize all stakeholders to the need for environmental sustainability.
  7. Redesign commerce emphasizing the delivery of value and services instead of just material.

Since 2011, Anderson’s foundation has advanced his legacy with new environmental initiatives and programs to help shepherd industries towards sustainable development. These include tackling climate change via the Georgia Climate Project and other programs, promoting migration from a linear to a circular economy, and working with the Biomimicry Institute to apply new solutions based on lessons learned from nature.

The Foundation partners with the Biomimicry Institute to offer an annual US$100,000 prize, the Ray of Hope Prize, to the top nature-inspired startup. In 2021, the Institute was awarded a multi-million-dollar grant to fund the Design for Decomposition program, which will explore ways to better biodegrade existing textile waste, while also proposing new ways of making fabrics more biocompatible and less petroleum-based.

Anderson’s transformative vision has also been honored by the creation of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Their mission is to provide educational and business programs with the resources needed to put sustainable development into practice.

The Legacy

Ray C. Anderson of Interface

The window for avoiding the worst effects of climate change is still open but is closing fast. The latest comprehensive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the world has until 2025 to reach peak carbon emissions to limit temperature increases to 1.5 °C. This would require a massive effort by all stakeholders (including individuals) but would only require a few percent of the global GDP to accomplish. As these IPCC reports take seven years to compile, this may be the last warning they will issue before climate disaster becomes inevitable.

For the textile industry, minimizing the cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of products is essential. It is the responsibility of the textile industry to continue Ray Anderson’s legacy. Anderson would ask what we are doing to help preserve future resources for our children.


About the Author

J. Michael Quante is a science editor, retired in 2021 from AATCC. He was primarily responsible for editing peer-reviewed articles for the AATCC Journal of Research. His current interests are writing about industrial uses of new technologies, potential applications of emergent research, sustainability, and biomimicry.

Photos of Ray Anderson are courtesy of Interface and the Ray Anderson Foundation. These photos are copyright Moon Shadow Photography, All Rights Granted for Use to Interface.

Photos of the Anderson family are courtesy of Chris Aluka Berry,


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