The visionary businessman who makes climate-neutral carpeting….

When I hear about new ideas, I love to learn the ‘origin’ story. How did this idea arise? Who first thought of it, and put it into practice?

And so it was when I read a recent story in Reasons to Be Cheerful, about a company which was making carbon neutral carpeting. I had heard the story of a company in India that was working with a floor tiling company to turn soot into tiles, and I was sure – just as with that story – that there must be a fascinating tale here to be told.

And who better to tell it than the man behind that US company, Interface, in Atlanta, Georgia, which seems to have always been in the forefront of innovation for a long time.

His name was Ray C. Anderson, and he ran a business that is doing brilliantly well even as it becomes ever more committed to running that business sustainably. (He died in 2011 but his Ray C. Anderson Foundation is carrying on his work.)

If you ever wondered if business people think ‘seven generations forwards’, then you must listen to him read Tomorrow’s Child, a poem written by Glenn C. Thomas in 1996.

Ray Anderson TED Talk May 13, 2009

It wa a journey that began for him three decades ago.

“In the early ‘90s a customer asked, “What’s your company doing for the environment?” When Ray realized he couldn’t answer this question, he created a company task force to solve it. As he prepared a speech to the task force kick-off meeting, he read Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce” and was deeply moved. He described the experience as an epiphany, his “spear in the chest” moment that changed his perspective on business and sustainability.”

“It awakened him to the urgent need to set a new course for Interface. He shook the foundations of the petroleum-intensive carpet manufacturing industry by declaring that Interface was committed to becoming the world’s first environmentally sustainable—and, ultimately, restorative—company.”

And that journey – awkward as it was at the beginning, when he was talking about things few others in his industry were – has continued. 

The company’s newest carpet technology is a game changer.

This is how the New York Times described the achievement earlier this year:

“This carpeting was a result of four years of intensive research and development, according to Interface. It incorporated a material made from recycled vinyl and processed vegetation; it was infused with a latex created from smokestack exhaust. It was topped and tufted with salvaged nylon. And it had been manufactured in the least environmentally demanding way possible.”

“By Interface’s reckoning, the carpeting had a carbon footprint of negative 300 grams per square meter. “It’s not a magic material,” Erin Meezan, chief sustainability officer at Interface, told me recently. But the math does have a magical quality to it: In part because of how the carbon is sourced, carpeting a 10-feet-by-20-feet conference room, say, with these tiles can be seen as the equivalent of pulling roughly 12 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”

Erin Meezan, and the company, hope it is the start of a trend.

“Meezan told me that some rivals in Europe and Asia have begun marketing carbon-neutral tiles, but they have yet to mimic Interface’s negative product. But she hopes customers will soon demand that every company making stuff for what she called “the built environment” — carpets, furniture, drywall and the like — will provide carbon-negative goods. By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of global CO2 emissions comes from buildings and construction, a level that Meezan notes is unsustainable. “That’s why we’re doing this,” she said.”

For more, see the Ray C. Anderson Foundation website.