Have you ever heard of Interface, Incorporated? They're a company that started making commercial carpet tiles back in the '70s, when office spaces began using open plans and hollow floors to run computer cables. In 1995, Interface had 40 percent of the market share in 110 countries.
This company, over time, has revolutionized the commercial carpet industry, through what could be called "cradle to cradle" manufacturing. You lease carpet in the form of tiles. When areas become worn, Interface replaces the worn areas with new carpet tiles and, the innovative part, takes the old tiles, not to the dump, but back to their factory where the old fibers and the old carpet backing are turned into new carpet tiles.
I've been hanging onto a little booklet, "The Journey from There to Here: The Eco-Odyssey of a CEO," by Ray C. Anderson the founder of Interface. I finally got around to reading it the other night. Not long, it's a speech Anderson gave to the U.S. Green Building Conference in 1995, laying out how his company got that way.
Besides being challenged by a subordinate to develop an environmental vision for the company, Anderson coincidentally read two books at roughly the same time, Paul Hawken's "The Ecology of Commerce" and Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael." Anderson says, "Hawken will tell you what is wrong, and Quinn will tell you why." Like a friend of ours who gave us a copy, Anderson has given away hundreds of copies of "Ishmael."
In his speech, Anderson went on to tackle the issue of whose assessment has it right? Are we in an environmental crisis or not? Anderson says, "There are 'alarmists' and there are 'foot draggers.' Ex-pressed in terms of perception, action, and outcome, the alarmists perceive the earth to be in crisis, see our actions as totally inadequate, and predict the outcome to be collapse. The foot draggers perceive things as not so bad, even getting better, see our actions as good enough, maybe too good-meaning expensive and misguided-and see the outcome as an abundant future for all."
Anderson says architect Bill McDonough sees a paradox in this conflict: The surest way to realize the alarmists' outcome, collapse, is to accept the foot draggers' view of where we are and what we need to do. And, the surest way to realize the foot draggers' outcome, abundance, is to believe the alarmists' view that we are in trouble and have to change."
Ironically, alarmists are working as hard as they can to achieve the foot draggers' vision. There's a small example in the back of Anderson's little booklet: "This publication is printed on acid-free, chlorine-free kenaf paper, which is made from a fast-growing African plant. Kenaf can reach a height of 15 feet in five months, producing five times as much pulp per acre in a year as an acre of trees ..."
The last part of Anderson's speech, however, revealed that he and I have something in common ...a respect for "the categorical imperative," a concept developed by Immanuel Kant, an 18th century Prussian philosopher. Kant's philosophy has lived with me to this day, providing words to live by ...sometimes rather uncomfortably.
"The categorical imperative," is sort of a re-working of the Golden Rule.
According to my old ethics textbook, Kant said, "Rational beings, to the extent that they act rationally, will always be guided by ethical principles or maxims which can be adopted by everyone else without generating any contradiction."
Anderson put it much more simply: "Before you do something, consider what the consequences would be if everybody did it." It's a simple, but rigorous, test to determine what is the right thing to do in any given situation. It's a guiding principle that helped me through many choices and apparently, it's a principle that Ray C. Anderson uses too.
The imperative works well for considering both our self-interested laziness and our more altruistic choices. What if we all threw our trash out the car window? What if we all lied whenever it gave us a financial advantage? What if we all cared only about ourselves when making decisions, considering no one else, not even our friends? And, on the other hand, what if we all recycled our pop cans? What if everyone was scrupulously honest? What if everyone voted? What if every business person thought like Ray Anderson-that you could do well by doing good-and actually figured out a way to do it?
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco, where she holds on to the hope that more people will live by the Golden Rule and consider the categorical imperative.