What work do you do?
I am founder and chair of Interface, Inc.
How does it relate to the environment?
I used to think that my job didn’t have anything to do with the environment. Then I realized that my job, as well as everyone else’s job, impacts the environment in some way. And now advocating for sustainability has become my No. 1 responsibility.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Simply put, I tell my story. But in order to do that, I travel all over the world, making speeches to groups both large and small. Sometimes I’m invited to have boardroom-style discussions with executives of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world that are interested in hearing about my own epiphanal experience and the positive results my company has realized as a result of our “new” mission.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I founded Interface in 1973, bringing the technology to make modular carpet — carpet tiles — from the U.K. to the American market. I took this entrepreneurial leap after graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology as an industrial engineer and working for many years for other textile manufacturers. That experience — investing not only my economic future but also my reputation in something never before done here — is in many ways similar to the experience of reinventing Interface as a sustainable enterprise. Skeptics abounded, but I was fortunate to be surrounded by committed people who shared my vision. Today, Interface is the largest manufacturer of modular carpet in the world.
Similarly, in 1994 when I made that first speech internally at Interface, and we launched what eventually became known as our journey up Mt. Sustainability, the skeptics emerged from Wall Street. But from Day One, sustainability has saved us money, not cost us. And it has earned us a tremendous amount of good will from our customers, something that cannot be measured or duplicated. And now, 10 years later, even the analysts are finally “getting it.”
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
That’s the interesting part — in the beginning I was very much “preaching to the choir”; today I could just as easily be meeting with the CEO and management team of one of the world’s largest corporations or business students at an Ivy League university.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I’m most frustrated by those who just don’t “get it.” Those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence regarding global warming; those who think that we can continue on the same path we’ve been traveling since the first industrial revolution. I’m equally perturbed by “green wash,” the practice of using the environment or any other social issue purely for economic or personal gain.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in West Point, Ga., and now live in Atlanta, with a mountain home my wife and I recently built “off the grid” in Highland, N.C.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
My epiphanal moment came about as the result of a book, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. It landed on my desk at a propitious time; I was preparing to make a speech to an internal task force about my environmental vision for Interface. As the date for the speech loomed closer, I began to become more uncomfortable with what I might say. Comply? Obey the law? It didn’t seem to be the right answer. Fortunately, Paul Hawken provided more than the impetus, he provided the framework for that initial speech, and in subsequent months and years, has continued to advise our company. He along with Amory Lovins, David Suzuki, Janine Benyus, and other experts were our educators and mentors in the early days.
What’s on your desk right now?
I’m famous for my stacks and piles … my desk is a series of them. It’s a system that works for me, though it does confound the people I work with.
Who is your environmental hero?
Paul Hawken — he started me down this road, and David Brower, who I didn’t know long enough before he died. David Suzuki is the world’s greatest scientist, in my opinion.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. Bush, for obvious reasons.
What’s your environmental vice?
I fly everywhere — I don’t even know how many thousands of miles it is per year. But we plant trees to offset the airline miles traveled by all Interface associates. I look at what I’m doing — traveling and speaking — as an investment in the future.
How do you get around?
I drive a Toyota Prius.
What are you reading these days?
Trying to read several things — Dennis Meadows’ latest book, the re-release of The Limits of Growth, is at the top of the list.
Are you a news junkie?
Lately, the election has me glued to the television. But generally no.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t think there is a stereotype that most fits me, but I enjoy being described as a “radical industrialist.”
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Costa Rica and the rainforest. I think the world is divided into two sets of people — those who have been to Monteverde and those who haven’t. My off-the-grid home in Lost Valley, N.C., is a close second.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Tax shifts — tax a barrel of oil, tax pollution, and reduce income taxes. To some that seems radical, but think about the absurdity of our current tax system and it begins to make sense.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
The environmental community is accumulating the wisdom amazingly well — we know everything we need to know — but what we aren’t doing particularly well is communicating it to everyone in a way that inspires action. The Bible calls that keeping your light under a bushel — it’s a song I learned in Sunday School growing up that has a lot of relevance to me.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
We take for granted our ability to just go get in an automobile and go somewhere. Personal transportation is so pervasive, as Americans we don’t think about the cumulative damage we do. We also do some mundane things that cumulatively have a huge effect — leaving your computer or television on, for example. Even the power that television uses when it’s off is huge — and something we never think about. There is so much that we take for granted.
What’s your favorite movie?
Being There with Peter Sellers. I loved it when he walked on water at the end.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
I’m answering these questions from the board meeting of the Suzuki Foundation in Canada, so right now, I’m happy at this very moment that Canada is still sane, while we’ve gone too far to the right. Canada is still firmly entrenched just left of center; it’s a safe haven for someone like me.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Read a book. Paul Hawken’s book did it for me. Visit the reading room on our website for ideas.
Too, every businessperson should survey their customers to see if they care about the environment. They might be amazed at the opportunity they are missing.