Industry’s capacity for innovation will fuel future prosperity

At first I thought Ray Anderson was blowing hot air.  “I want to pioneer the company of the next industrial revolution,” said Anderson.  He’s  C.E.O. of Interface Corporation, the largest manufacturer of carpets and flooring in the world.


Now I think that he is on to something good.  Maybe he exaggerates a bit but it’s not all hyperbole.  Anderson travels the world telling anyone who will listen how he saw the light.  “I’m a recovering plunderer,” he recently told CBC TV.  It’s quite an admission from a guy who spent most of his career as a self-confessed environmental vandal.

It’s no small undertaking.  Interface Corporation has 7300 employees working in 26 flooring factories on 4 continents.  Interface’s most efficient plant is in Belleville, Ontario, where they have reduced greenhouse emissions by 30 per cent while increasing employment by 250 per cent since 1994.  According to Anderson, even his employees are happier knowing that they are helping the planet to breath easier.

Anderson is crusading to turn industrial capitalism around.  Since its beginning, the industrial revolution has been relentlessly linear – –  raw materials, energy, product, packaging, marketing, waste.  Anderson’s mantra is “cyclic capitalism”.  In short, companies should consume their own waste.

Anderson does not lack ideas; leasing carpet to customers and re-spinning them into new, making fabrics from recycled pop bottles, making carpets from hemp.  He’s already making office furniture fabric from pop bottles but is butting heads with puritanical opposition and the “war on drugs” gaggle in the U.S. Bush administration.

Anderson was recently in Canada preaching to the converted at the David Suzuki Foundation.  The occasion was the release of the Foundation’s 50 page report called How Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol Will Benefit Canada’s Competitiveness.

The report shows how savings to health care, innovation in new technologies, and energy savings could make Canada more competitive, not less as critics of Kyoto claim.

It can be done.  The oil industry in Saskatchewan is importing 95 million cubic feet of carbon dioxide a day from North Dakota and injecting it into depleted oil fields.   Yes, you read right.  They’re importing the greenhouse gas that everyone else is so worried about.  Instead of releasing into the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide is used to pressurize the oil field.  Like a shook-up pop can, the previously inaccessible oil is forced out of the field, extending the life of one oil well near Weyburn by 25 years.

British Petroleum is ahead of its target of 10 per cent reduction by using simple measures, like stopping leaks.  “And we’ve met it at no net economic cost – because the savings from reduced energy inputs and increased efficiency have outweighed all the expenditure involved,” according to John Browne, Chief Executive, BP.

Some industries have a habit of just saying no to goals that would protect the environment.  They objected to the signing of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, for example, which set goals in the reduction of CFCs that destroy the ozone layer and sulphur dioxide that causes acid rain.  The actual cost of reducing sulphur dioxide was as little as one-seventh what industry estimated.  The benefit of having acid-reduced lakes is priceless.

The Kyoto accord requires only a modest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.   The European Union and Japan have already done so.  California has voluntarily reduced greenhouse gas emissions below what Canada would have to under Kyoto.  Keep in mind that California is bigger than Canada in population.

Canadians agree with Kyoto, not because they think that Canada’s contribution alone will have any great impact, but because it’s the right thing to do. The rate at which we are consuming non-renewable energy is unsustainable.

Canadians understand that if we are not part of the solution,  then we are part of the problem.  The issue is not just our ability to compete.  The issue is also whether we want to languish in fossil-fuel technology just so we can appease a U.S. administration that doesn’t know, or care, that we exist.

“A country’s prosperity is created – – not inherited from it’s natural resources,”  say Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School.  Canada’s prosperity depends on the capacity of industry to innovate and upgrade.  To do otherwise will relegate Canada as a backwater attachment of the U.S. – – good only for our natural resources.


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