Corporate balancing act: how businesses can bolster profits while protecting the environment

Ray Anderson set out to prove a point: you can do good business and do good for the environment. He put his now billion-dollar carpet company on a path to achieve 100 percent sustainability and still boost production and profitability. In "Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose - Doing Business by Respecting the Earth," published by St. Martin's Press, he lays out his manifesto on ethical business operation.

GUEST BLOGGER: Ray C. Anderson

It must be sacrilege to challenge the great man, but Milton Friedman was wrong. A generation of business people has grown up believing and following his mantra, "Business exists to make a profit." And, as a result, we have a global economy struggling to find its footing, as excess zeal in the search for profits at any cost is revealed right and left.

One cost that is coming home to roost is the loss of nature, as evidenced by declining natural systems which undergird the economy, indeed civilization itself. For what economy, what civilization, can function without air, water, energy, soil creation thus food, materials, climate regulation, an ultraviolet radiation shield, pollination, seed dispersal, water distribution (the hydrologic cycle), the carbon cycle including photosynthesis, and more - all supplied by nature and her natural systems?

Truly, nature is the "goose that lays all the golden eggs" and, as we learned as children reading "Jack and the Beanstalk," we must not squeeze the goose so tightly as to kill it. Yet, that is precisely what the blind pursuit of profits at any cost is doing.

The institution of business and industry is the most powerful, pervasive, wealthy, and influential institution on earth, and it is the institution that is doing the greatest damage to nature. It is also the institution most capable of leading humankind out of the mess we are making of this living planet.

There is a better way, and it is high time this institution got off its destructive tangent to travel that better way - better ethically, morally, and, ironically, profitably - a better way for the planet and for the shareholders.

Here is how that better way has manifested itself at my company, Interface, Inc., a global producer of carpets for business, institutional, and residential markets. Interface has - over the last 13 ½ years - reduced its net greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90 percent (in absolute tonnage), even as sales and production have increased; water usage is down 83 percent, scrap to landfills is down 83 percent; 89 percent of electricity is from renewable sources; 96 million square yards of climate neutral carpet have been produced and sold since 2003 (climate neutral from wellhead to end-of-life reclamation, third party verified); and 96,000 tons of product at end-of-life have been diverted from landfills and incinerators by closed loop recycling.

That's for the planet. For the shareholders, costs are down, not up, dispelling a myth and exposing the false choice between environment and economy. Products are the best ever, as design for sustainability has proven to be a wellspring of innovation. People are galvanized around a shared higher purpose. And the goodwill of the marketplace is amazing. No amount of clever marketing at any cost could have created as much.

In 53 years in the business world, since graduating from Georgia Tech in 1956, including the founding of Interface in 1973 and shepherding it to a billion dollars in global sales, I have never known a more powerful differentiator.

Consider a better mantra: "Business makes a profit to exist, and must surely exist for some higher purpose," given its global reach and its power for good (or evil).

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 28, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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