When searching through Daniel’s computer files, I came across this essay, written I think in about 1996. When speaking to groups or answering questions, Daniel often invoked Ray Anderson as an example of what one person could accomplish in creating change. This essay seems to be a core piece about Ray, and you’ll find bits from it echoed in others of Daniel’s writings or speeches on this website. –RMQ


In the past few months, I doubt if I’ve spoken to a single audience without telling the story of Ray Anderson in response to someone’s question about “What To Do.”

Ray Anderson is the founder and CEO of the Interface Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer and marketer of carpet tile, the floor covering of choice for virtually every commercial building in recent decades—shopping malls, convention centers, hospitals, hotels, office buildings, and so on. Until two years ago, Anderson was one of those global entrepreneurs that many of my readers automatically think of as the big bad wolves of the world. His business was heavily petroleum-dependent, wasteful of resources in the usual way, and a terrific contributor the world’s landfill. This isn’t to say that he was notably careless or unscrupulous; on the contrary, he was always conscientious about being in compliance with all relevant regulations.

Then two years ago, Ray Anderson read two books in quick succession. One was Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. The other was Ishmael. These two books completely overturned his view of himself and his business, and virtually overnight he decided to make far-reaching changes. He would no longer be content with being merely in compliance, because he now understood that being merely in compliance is not nearly enough. He made up his mind, first, to develop new petroleum-free manufacturing processes for his carpeting, second, to develop carpeting capable of being 100% recycled—into materials from which all his new carpeting could be made, and third, to encourage his customers to think differently about their floor covering needs; instead of buying carpet and discarding it when it was no longer serviceable, leasing carpet that would be reclaimed, recycled totally, and replaced with carpeting made from 100% recycled materials. These were goals he intended to reach before the end of the century; what they added up to was creating a truly sustainable business, offering recyclable products made entirely from recycled materials—zero waste, zero contribution to landfill.

So successful has Ray Anderson been in pursuing these goals that he has—in two years flat—become recognized as a world leader in the development of sustainable industry. Not only has he set new goals for himself, he has inspired others to set new goals (and, incidentally, forced his competitors to set new goals in order to remain competitive).

This story is not told primarily for those who ask what they should do—not many of us are in a position to undertake such an ambitious program. It is told primarily for those who think I assign too much importance to the idea of changing minds—who think I should be advocating action, not vision. Because of course it is a story specifically about the relation between action and vision.

Action for many activists often takes this form: “Let’s mount a campaign to force industrialists to behave responsibly toward the environment. Let’s organize boycotts. Let’s organize letter-writing campaigns to our representatives in government. Let’s pass tough new laws. Let’s insist on more vigilant policing of those laws. Let’s take law-breakers to court and levy stiff fines against them. Let’s send them to jail.” All of that is perceived to be ACTION.

Now please try to imagine how much of that sort of action it would have taken to FORCE Ray Anderson to turn his company into a model of sustainable industry. How many laws would have been needed? How many lobbying groups would have organized opposition to the passage of such laws? How many lobbying groups would have organized support for the passage of such laws? How many years would have been spent before these laws were actually on the books? How many years would have been spent testing the laws in the courts before they were deemed enforceable? How many billions would be spent by industrialists to evade and resist the application of these laws?

Now please look again at what happened in the case of Ray Anderson. Reading two books changed his mind—and he did all the rest. No laws had to be written and passed to force him to change. No police had to drag him to court to force him to change. No court had to fine him or send him to jail to make him change. All it took was a few hours of reading.

But there is even more to it than this. No one will EVER pass laws requiring industrialists to become leaders in sustainable development. Once his mind was changed, Ray Anderson left mere compliance with laws far, far behind—and they’ll never catch up to him. There will never be a set of laws REQUIRING industrialists to be as conscientious as Ray Anderson has become as a result of having his mind changed. He has made policing irrelevant (to him—not to others) by going far beyond what the law requires.

This is our model for the future. We must all leave mere compliance with laws far, far behind. We must make policing irrelevant to ourselves by going far beyond what the law requires. Let thousands of legislators and lobbyists continue their dirty games and endless wranglings; if that’s where the “action” is, let’s let them have it.

Let’s just leave them behind to tussle in the dust. We’ll do it the easy way—by changing minds.

Read more about Ray Anderson in INSPIRED.