Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Environmentalist Ray Anderson

In 2005 I was part of the interfaith delegation attending the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP-1) to the Kyoto Protocol─the protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aimed at fighting “global warming,” since the gathering in Kyoto in 1997. It was therefore one of the largest intergovernmental conferences on climate change ever, hosting more than 10,000 delegates. I was representing the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL); our ecumenical team was monitoring the international negotiations on climate change and meeting with scientists and government officials from many countries to discuss ethical and moral responses to this urgent environmental crisis. It was at this gathering that I first heard and met, Ray Anderson, chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest carpet-tile manufacturer, Interface, Inc.

Wearing my more radical grassroots hat, I was also involved with a group called, the Climate Crisis Coalition, and being genetically predisposed to activism and looking out for the little guy, I was wary of big business. In walked Ray Anderson, this charismatic, all-American looking executive, with his almost evangelical approach to the need to reduce waste and carbon emissions. But this wasn’t always his mantra. He had an ethical wake-up call after reading Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and realizing that he, through his company’s role in the industrial system, was a “plunderer of Earth.” This resulted in his helping to pave (or should I say, carpet the way), for innovative thinking on sustainability and how a company could remain profitable and do the right thing, all at the same time. From that point on, in any facility greening project I was involved in, I touted the many benefits of investing in Interface carpeting, a green business success story. But I also need to disclose that I had a personal agenda for my support as well. Besides their goal of a zero carbon footprint and using renewable materials, Interface figured out a way to eliminate the use of adhesive toxic glues, notorious for causing off-gassing─the evaporation of volatile chemicals in non-metallic materials. In layman’s terms…that new carpet smell that overwhelms you when you enter a newly carpeted space. Being chemically-sensitive, I am particularly sensitive to this. (No one should have to endure the affects of off-gassing, especially children.)

In a tribute to Ray Anderson, who passed away on August 9, New York Times writer (and my friend), Paul Vitello, quoted from a speech Anderson made to the business community after being inspired by Paul Hawken’s book. “We are all part of the continuum of humanity and life. We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum and the earth that sustains all life. It’s that simple. Which will it be?”

Ray Anderson, through Interface, was part of the continuum of addressing our greatest environmental threat, climate change; as well as reducing waste and indoor air pollution─key to a healthy building, whether it be a home, business, or house of worship─making a sacred space, a little more sacred.

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