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Paula Gordon

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A True Radical, a Great Man

Posted: 08/13/11 05:15 PM ET

Green is good for business. Not greenwash, GREEN. By working with nature rather than despoiling nature, Ray Anderson has led his company to high levels of success and profitability.

Ray Anderson died this week, of cancer. And the cancer is not incidental to this story. Ray was a friend and an inspiration. A lot of people talk about the environment. Ray did something. A lot of people say that we have to choose between a livable environment and a prosperous economy. Ray showed them that they were wrong, and he did it in an industry which is one of the most toxic around. Though it is impossible to know with absolute certainty precisely what causes a cancer, Ray spent much of his early career in the old-fashioned carpet industry ... one which used (and still uses) bioactive, petroleum-based chemicals to manufacture the carpets. There's a very good chance that long-term exposure to those chemicals caused the cancer that killed Ray.

In 1994, Ray read Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. Ever after he characterized that experience as a "spear through the chest."

Quite simply, Ray realized that the industry in which he was making his fortune was killing the earth and he did the only reasonable thing; he committed his company (Interface) to becoming, much more than just sustainable, restorative.

The last time we talked with Ray, we talked about that journey which he came to call "climbing mount sustainability." He tells the story of that journey in Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. It is a story everyone needs to hear. It is a story which gives the lie to the self-serving arguments of those who believe that money is more important than life ... their money, your life. As a stark choice, most of us who are not certifiably nuts would choose A (life) over B (money). So, the profiteers obfuscate the choice. Taking their cue from the tobacco industry, they spend millions on denial, distraction and diversion. And they buy politicians.

What Ray did, bless him, was to demonstrate that the life-versus-wealth argument is all wrong. All that is required is honesty and imagination and really good business skills ... and the willingness to work like hell to bring one's vision to fruition. Ray fit the bill.

We will miss Ray. We would have missed him even more had he not shown us that we can rise above parochial self-interest. Call it enlightened self-interest. Call it leadership. Call it a good man who did an astonishing amount to make our world better. Call it a challenge to each of us to do so well.

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