Making Change: Can Business Make the World Better?

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Ray Anderson runs the billion-dollar flooring company Interface, based in Atlanta. He's a businessman - an industrialist - who says his company's primary purpose is not to produce carpet, but to promote and embody sustainability. Why? Because our future is at stake, he says.

Ray Anderson: We know if the day came in the distant future when earth lost its livability, it would have happened insidiously, one polluted stream at a time, one polluted river at a time, one collapsing fish stock, one dying coral reef at a time.

Anderson's commitment to sustainability is relatively new. Eleven years ago, when his customers began asking, "What is your company doing for the environment?" Anderson says he discovered to his dismay that he had no answer beyond, "We obey the law". Then he read Paul Hawkins' book, The Ecology of Commerce, and says it revolutionized his thinking.

Ray Anderson: I said to my people in August 31, 1994, if Hawkins is right, biz and industry must lead. who will lead biz and industry? Unless somebody leads, nobody will. It's a truism. Why not us?

In the past 11 years, the people at Interface have transformed their company, creating a model for sustainable business practices in the process. Interface's approach is multi-faceted, and includes reducing waste and harmful emissions, using renewable energy, and looking to nature for design ideas, among other things. Anderson says what started out as the right thing to do, quickly became the smart thing to do.

Ray Anderson: Our costs are down because of the waste elimination efforts; our products are the best they've every been. Our people are galvanized around this higher purpose, and the goodwill of the marketplace is just astounding. So it's been good for biz and good for the earth; it is a better way to make a bigger profit.

The Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit brought Anderson to Case last week, to share his story and philosophy with students, faculty, and business people, who had gathered to consider how to transform the Weatherhead School of Management. The goal? To put sustainability at the core of the business school curriculum. David Cooperrider, who launched the BAWB several years ago, says, while Anderson is certainly on the leading edge of the sustainability in business movement, he's not alone.

David Cooperrider: I do see around the world a major shift happening in our very, very senior leaders in executive positions.

Cooperrider says when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan convened a meeting of 500 business leaders from around the world last year to look at the role business could play in addressing the world's most pressing issues, it was an important step forward.

David Cooperrider: Basically, he reached out his hand to the CEOs and said, Let us choose now to unite the strengths of markets with the power of universal ideals, to make globalization work for everyone.

But, why look to business solve world problems, when some say business has been largely responsible for the world's most intractable challenges, like environmental degradation? Interface's Ray Anderson says those who've caused a problem are best situated to solve it. And Judy Rodgers, who now runs the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case, says business should lead the way, because it has the capacity to do so.

Judy Rodgers: Business, for better or worse, is the engine. It's who we work for, where we spend our money. Increasingly, biz set policies for places to live. So how business works is deeply important to our society.

Which means, she says, that what business schools do - how they prepare students for their roles as leaders in business - is also critical. And the point of last week's gathering at Case was to determine just what the Weatherhead School could do to groom the Ray Andersons of the next 10, 20, and 30 years.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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