April 28, 2003

Anderson Lectures on Industry, Environment

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Speaking on sustainability and industry, Ray Anderson addressed an audience of about 250 people in Uris Auditorium on Friday afternoon. The CEO and founder of Interface Corporation, Anderson is best known for his efforts to make his company, which manufactures carpets and other interior design products, environmentally friendly.

Anderson greeted the audience, commenting, “I haven’t been to Cornell, but obviously my salespeople have, for our carpet’s all around.”

He then described how his corporate philosophy became “greener” after reading the book The Ecology of Commerce in 1994. He said he didn’t realize the impact of industry on the environment before reading the book, and then listed a vast array of environmental issues.

“The bottom line is, we’re losing. We’re losing the biosphere,” he said. “One butchered tree at a time … one lost habitat at a time … one desertified field at a time … one-tenth of a degree at a time … one starving and diseased human being at a time.”

Although he acknowledged improvement in these issues, he emphasized how much more he thinks change needs to occur and criticized economic markets that hurt people as much as they do the environment.

“Two-thirds of humanity has been left out by the modern industrial system that we enjoy so much. Left out except to be exploited,” he said.

Now, Anderson said he regrets his former business practices and described his attempts to put his beliefs into action.

“I myself became a recovering plunderer,” he said.

He described Interface’s goal as “to reach the point where our petroleum-intensive company … takes nothing from [the] earth.”

Interface has established seven goals to guide its sustainability policies, including eliminating waste, releasing only benign emissions, using resource-efficient transportation and depending solely on renewable energy.

Beyond his own company, Anderson strongly encourages other companies and universities to drastically improve their environmental policies. He also strongly criticized schools that do not teach students about environmental issues.

“[Universities] are producing graduates who are trained to destroy the biosphere,” he said.

In particular, Anderson dislikes business classes that promote relying strictly on free-market forces.

“We continue to teach economics students to trust the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand is blind,” he said.

He ended the speech by reading a poem titled “Tomorrow’s Child.” He then accepted questions from the audience which addressed the competitive response to his policy change, government policies and economic difficulties at Interface.

The audience appeared to respond well to Anderson’s speech, although several people left during the question-and-answer session. Attendance to the speech was required for students in the NBA 573: Seminar in Sustainable Development course.

Although she enjoyed the lecture, Allyson Field ’03 expected Anderson to focus on his company’s own policies.

“I liked finding [that] there was a big industrial company that seems to care about the environment,” she said. “[But] I was expecting [him] to talk a little more about what his company [is] doing specifically than about how industry has to change.”

Daniel Broderick ’03 also enjoyed the speech and felt Anderson made a number of good points.

“It was right on target in terms of [what] the curriculum is focused on,” he said.

As a mechanical engineering major, Broderick said many of his classes revolved around processes involving petroleum.

Noah Pollack, treasurer of Kyoto Now! and organizer of the talk, said the goal of inviting Anderson was to raise awareness on campus of environmental issues.

“It’s our hope Cornell can learn from [Anderson] and emulate Interface’s example,” he said. “I hope students will gain appreciation for the role of both businesses and universities in creating a society that embraces principles of sustainability.”

In addition to Kyoto Now!, the Johnson Graduate School of Management, the Society for Natural Resource Conservation, the Ecology House, Cornell Greens, Activist Knitting Circle and the Student Assembly Finance Commission sponsored the event.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher