Ray AndersonRay AndersonPhoto: InterfaceWay back in the ’90s, before every company under the sun wanted to be seen as green, Ray Anderson started trying to make his business truly sustainable. Not we-buy-carbon-offsets sustainable or look-at-our-recycled-packaging sustainable, but real-deal sustainable.

In 1994, his world was rocked by reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce, an experience Anderson described as being hit with a “spear in the chest.” The book pinpointed business and industry as the biggest force for environmental destruction, but also the most potentially powerful force for positive change. It forced Anderson to recognize himself as a “plunderer of the earth” and inspired him to embark on a multi-step process to become “a recovering plunderer.”

Under his leadership, the carpet company he founded in the 1970s, Interface, set forth on “Mission Zero” — aiming for zero waste, zero impact, and zero footprint by 2020. For Interface, Anderson said, sustainability meant “eventually operating our petroleum-intensive company in such a way as to take from the earth only what can be renewed by the earth naturally and rapidly, not another fresh drop of oil, and to do no harm to the biosphere. Take nothing. Do no harm.” In 2009, he told Grist that his company was halfway there.

Mission Zero, according to Anderson, has been incredibly good for business — bringing costs down, boosting morale up, and attracting lots of customers. Anderson’s proselytizing — he gave more than 1,000 speeches and wrote two books — convinced many other business leaders to take up the sustainability challenge, from mom-and-pop outfits all the way to Walmart.

Anderson died at his home on Monday of cancer. His legacy will, of course, live on, and Interface will continue its climb up “Mount Sustainability.”

Watch Anderson’s 2009 TED talk:

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