How Reindeer Inspired a Sustainable Business Revolution

A story in The Ecology of Commerce prompted Ray Anderson to make his carpet company zero-waste.

Ray Anderson, who died Monday of cancer, made his name as a leader in sustainable business, but he wasn't always an environmentalist. Anderson started his company, Interface Inc., in the 1970s to sell “modular carpeting”—squares of carpet that could be customized to particular spaces. Modern, durable carpets are made from synthetic materials manufactured from petrochemicals, like nylon, polyester, and acrylic, and Anderson later called Interface “a company so oil-intensive you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry.”

That began to change in the early 1990s, when Anderson set Interface on track to what he would call “Mission Zero”: an effort to eliminate “any negative impact” on the environment by 2020. The company began recycling materials used to make the petrochemical-derived fibers in its carpet squares, using renewable energy at its factories, selling carbon-neutral carpet, and reducing waste across its business.

The idea was considered revolutionary in the business world, but it was directly inspired by Paul Hawken's 1993 book The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken had led two companies, natural foods wholesaler Erewhon Trading Company and gardening retailer Smith & Hawken, before writing the book. But despite Hawken's high profile and two previously-published business books, The Ecology of Commerce was unpopular with the business press, which wasn’t yet interested in discussing how to make companies more sustainable.

When Anderson picked up the book, “I’d never heard of Paul Hawken,“ he wrote later. “To me ecology was just a source for raw materials and the place to (legally) flush our wastes; ecology, nature was just a component of a larger entity—the economy.”

Hawken’s book argued that companies should aim to reduce both their carbon emissions and the amount of natural resources they drew from nature. He wrote that “our business practices are destroying life on earth” but also that company executives were right, in some cases, to suspect that “doing the right thing might put them out of business.” The answer, he concluded, was for the business community to find its own way to sustainability instead of reluctantly following government regulations.

In his memoir, Anderson shared the anecdote from The Ecology of Commerce that most affected his environmental vision: the story of St. Matthew Island, a government research station where 29 reindeer were imported in 1944. Because the island had no predators, the reindeer population boomed to 1,350 12 years after the research station shut down and people left the island, and 6,000 six years after that. But by the early 1960s the reindeer population had collapsed, having stripped the small island of its vegetation.

This story, Anderson said, made clear to him that “you can’t go on consuming more than your environment is able to renew.”

A year after Anderson read about St. Matthew Island, he hired Hawken and several others to form an “Eco Dream Team” and guide his company toward its zero-waste goal. Shortly before he died, Anderson said he thought the company was halfway there. Interface may have lost its leader, but it still has eight-plus years to meet the goal.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Risager.