Valley native led the greening of U.S. industry

A boy is born in West Point, Ga., in the depths of the Depression, gets a football scholarship to college and goes on to found a billion-dollar-a-year multinational corporation.

That’s a classic American success story.

For Ray Anderson, 77, who died Tuesday in Atlanta from complications of liver cancer, success, wealth and power were only the beginning of that story.

His life was, and his legacy is, much richer. And among his beneficiaries are far more than just his heirs and stockholders.

Son of the West Point postmaster and a schoolteacher, Anderson grew up in the textile culture of the Chattahoochee Valley. So when he earned his engineering degree from Georgia Tech, it is not surprising that he soon turned to the carpet industry to make his living and, eventually, his fortune. In 1973 he founded Atlanta-based Interface, today the largest manufacturer of carpet tiles, and would spend two decades making lots of carpet and lots of money.

Then, in 1994, he had what he called a “spear in the chest” experience: He read Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce,” which described the effects of standard industrial practices on the environment.

“A new definition of success burst into my consciousness,” he said in a speech years later. “ I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind.”

Anderson would bring an almost evangelical passion to his changed vision of industrial culture. His wasn’t an anti-business message -- he described himself in a 2005 Financial Post interview as “an industrialist and an entrepreneur and as competitive as anybody you’re likely to know” -- but rather, a message that environmental responsibility and good business were not just compatible, but complementary. (He estimated Interface’s cost savings from waste elimination alone at $262 million.)

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, told the Post: “It’s not often that you have a corporate CEO who is as committed to environmental issues or more than those of us in the environmental movement itself. I don’t think any other corporation has come close to doing what he has done.”

Anderson would, among his many other roles, serve as chair of the Georgia Conservancy. Another former Conservancy chair, John Sibley, wrote a touching tribute in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that described the depth of Anderson’s environmental commitment: “The only word I can think of to describe it is love. I’ll miss Ray Anderson’s love the most. So will Mother Earth.”

Maybe the best epitaph comes from the man himself. Anderson’s New York Times obituary quotes from one of the first speeches he made after his conversion experience: “We are all part of the continuum of humanity and life. We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum and the earth that sustains all life. It’s that simple.”