When Henry Ford launched his Model T motorcar, he stipulated that all parts from sub-contractors must be shipped to his Detroit assembly plant in wooden crates which were required to meet certain specifications as to size and sturdiness. These crates were subsequently used to make the floor-boards of the 'Tin Lizzy'. This early example of industrial recycling was no doubt motivated by a desire to maximise profits, rather than to minimise the ecological impact of the manufacturing process.
Some four-score years later, another captain of industry -- or 'plunderer of the Earth', as he labels himself with self-deprecating humour -- has duplicated the Ford formula, but on a much larger scale and to a much nobler end: minimising the ecological impact of his company's activities. For Ray Anderson, author of Mid-Course Correction, is also founder and chairman of Interface, the world's largest maker of commercial carpeting, with factories in 34 countries, annual sales well over $1 billion, and rated by Fortune magazine as one of the best 100 US companies to work for.
Being a belated convert to conservation -- hence the title of his book -- the author gives a heart-warming account of his own 'epiphany' in 1994, when he came to the personal realisation that we cannot continue depleting the planet's finite resources and polluting our own biosphere ad infinitum. The fact that he was by then a grandfather of five may well have contributed to his conversion.
His environmental philosophy could be summed up in the slogan of the President's Council on Sustainable Development, of which he was appointed co-chair in 1997: 'If we all do a little, we can do a lot'. It is what the author calls 'The Power of One'. And this power has been put to good use, not just in his own company, which succeeded in cutting waste and pollution by some 25 per cent in the first three years after implementation of the new sustainability programme, (while saving millions of dollars in the process), but also by his legion of suppliers and customers around the world. Collectively, he says, 'the thousands of little, environmentally sensitive things [that each one of us can do] are just as important as the five big technologies of the future: solar energy, closed loop recycling, zero waste, harmless emissions, and resource-efficient transportation.'
To emphasise the need for prompt and decisive action to create a sustainable world economy, Anderson posits compressing the geological life span of our planet -- 750 million years -- into the Bible's six days of creation. By this reckoning, the industrial revolution took place one fortieth of a second ago, and it makes little difference whether our reserves of petroleum and other raw materials are sufficient to last another 50 or 500 years -- either figure is just a blink of an eye on the geophysical time scale. Our problem is that we are accustomed to measuring time relative to our own 'puny time on Earth' -- a blip on the cosmic computer screen.
The author also debunks the myth perpetuated by many religions that 'the Earth was made for man to conquer and rule'. Instead he sets forth some guidelines for developing a new industrial system, based on a paradigm which acknowledges, among other points, that the Earth's resources are finite, the diversity of nature is crucial to the whole web of life, and that technology must become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
One thing is certain: Anderson's writing cannot be dismissed as the ramblings of some environmental alarmist. Instead, one can only hope that Mid-Course Correction may serve as an inspiration and course of action for other business executives. Its author has proved that it is, indeed, possible to 'do well by doing good'.
- Gard Binney, The Ecologist