Recently, I had the pleasure of escorting an up-and-coming young professional who is just learning the sustainability business on a tour of two facilities that reprocess plastic and rubber. But what made this tour particularly gratifying to me was the mere fact of our being able to take it, and that the individual I was accompanying could get a first-hand look at the actual technologies involved in transforming what would once have been throwaway items into marketable new commodities (for instance, converting used hospital gowns into waterproof plastic footware).
Only a few short years ago, no such opportunity would have existed. That’s because there was no real “sustainability business” to take a tour of – only a lot of theoretical talk about possibilities and a glint in the eye of people who could envision them. Pioneers, for example, like the late Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, Inc. one of the world’s biggest producers of modular commercial flooring, which maintains manufacturing facilities on four continents and sells its products in 110 countries. After reading Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce” in 1994, Anderson made it his personal mission to become one of the enlightened entrepreneurs that Hawken felt were the planet’s only hope for salvation from environmentally destructive industrial practices.
By 2009, Anderson felt his company had passed the halfway point of what he termed “Mission Zero” – a campaign to redesign its products and processes and create new technologies that would eliminate any damaging impact on the environment. Along the way, he wrote two books of his own about the journey –“Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model” and “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose: Doing Business by Respecting the Earth,” and his company became the subject of a documentary film. He went on to become an adviser to two presidents, Clinton and Obama and to serve as co-chair of the committee that developed a 100-day action plan on climate for the latter in 2008.
Thanks to the efforts of Anderson and other like-minded visionaries, what used to be considered pie-in-the-sky is now very much down to earth, so that today we actually have a working, thriving sector of the economy devoted to preserving resources, preventing pollution and mitigating the damage done by decades of our having ignored the pernicious effects of unsustainable processes. These new pioneers have not only begun the daunting task of cleaning up industry’s act, but have demonstrated to today’s budding young professionals that such things aren’t just possible — they’re actually doable. It’s passing on that realization to the next generation of industrialists and entrepreneurs that is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of what they’ve managed to achieve in just the past decade.
I could see it myself in the excitement it engendered in my youthful companion – a feeling that, in turn, gave me renewed inspiration.