I had never heard of Ray Anderson the first time I went to cover one of his speeches at a conference. But after a few minutes of listening to him, he became a hero of mine.

Anderson -- as many of you probably know -- became an unlikely, and influential, figure for the renewable movement. He built Interface, a carpet manufacturer based in Georgia, into a multibillion-dollar business over the course of several decades. Then, an employee asked what Interface planned to do for the environment. Anderson huddled with executives and handlers and wondered what to serve up as a reply: we comply with all laws; we have never been convicted, etc.

While preparing the canned response, someone gave him Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce that detailed how civilization could destroy itself through the depredation of natural resources.

“It hit me like a spear in the chest,” Anderson told me.

After reading the book, Anderson put Interface on a quest: to make Interface a carbon-neutral company by 2020.

Investors, pundits, customers and even employees thought he was nuts. But since 1996, Interface has reduced fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent and total energy use by 44 percent, curbed greenhouse gases by 82 percent, reduced water use by 73 percent, and decreased waste going to landfills by 67 percent. Meanwhile, revenue has grown 66 percent and earnings have zoomed. Since 2003, Interface has made 83 million square yards of carpet with zero environmental impact linked to its production. Employees began to examine ways to make their operations more efficient.

And carpet tiles -- a European concept brought to the U.S. by Interface -- are now all the rage among designers. Style, profit and sustainability in one package.

Just as important, Anderson realized that you can’t convince someone or an organization about the need to protect the environment or invest in a sustainable future. They have to convince themselves. You could try to goad Anderson into saying something bad about an opponent, but he would resist. He always felt that everyone would come to agree with him if given time.

The only person he would criticize was Milton Friedman. He couldn’t back the economic hero of the '80s and '90s. For those of you that lost thousands today in plummeting oil stocks, maybe you will want to pick up Anderson’s Confessions of a Radical Industrialist.

Demographically, he was in some ways the ideal messenger. A successful businessman not from California who came to believe in sustainability through personal conviction and a St. Paul-like moment backed up by a solid balance sheet. If his health hadn’t begun to fail, he would have been a formidable force in the Obama White House, or even the U.S. Senate.

Now we have to build on that legacy.

The following is an article based on an interview with Anderson last year:

The world changes in a moment, according to Ray Anderson.

A female executive from a large customer once visited Interface, the multibillion dollar carpet manufacturer founded by Anderson, with the express purpose of seeing Interface’s achievements in sustainable manufacturing in action.

Since 1996, Interface has reduced fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent and total energy use by 44 percent, curbed greenhouse gases by 82 percent, reduced water use by 73 percent, and decreased waste going to landfills by 67 percent. Meanwhile, revenue has grown 66 percent and earnings have zoomed. Since 2003, Interface has made 83 million square yards of carpet with zero environmental impact linked to its production.

“I don’t believe this stuff,” she said, so Anderson let her loose. Soon, she began to quiz a fork lift driver.

“'Ma’am, I come here every day to save the Earth,’ the driver said,” Anderson recalled. “She about collapsed.”

The driver then explained how changes on the factory floor that have reduced company costs and cut fuel consumption. Then he cut the conversation short. The emissions from his forklift were creating waste.

“She was a totally changed person,” he said. “It was love on the factory floor.”

Anderson remains perhaps the world’s most persuasive spokesperson when it comes to sustainability. Interface’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Carpet manufacturing traditionally relies heavily on fossil fuels -- carpet is made from nylon -- and the industry generates vast amounts of waste.

Interface, though, is already 60 percent on its way to achieving a zero footprint by 2020. At the same time, Interface has cut $400 million worth of waste out of its operation.

“Eliminating waste has more than paid for the rest of it,” he said. (You can find an impressive array of facts and figures in his book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. I recommend it as a gift for the climate-change denier in your family.)

The emphasis on reducing waste and fossil fuels has also spawned new product lines -- such as the ReEntry 2.0 carpet produced with recycled materials -- that have directly led to large contracts with customers like Disney and the University of Georgia. 

A landfill-to-methane plant in LaGrange, Georgia has cut Interface’s costs as well as allowed the city to escape the need to spend $20 million on a new dump.  In fact, the city now gets around $300,000 a year from the sale of gas generated by the landfill.

On top of all this you have the man himself, a polite Southerner who grew up in a small town during the Great Depression. A football scholarship to Georgia Tech and few lessons in perseverance put him on the road to an engineering career and success as an entrepreneur.

There are politicians that would pay good money for that sort of hardscrabble background.

But even more important is the way Anderson believes that the concepts of recyclability, energy efficiency and sustainability can spread.

“People have to accept it for themselves,” he said.

The first person he persuaded was himself. In 2004, someone gave him Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken, one of the founders of Smith and Hawken, argued that industrial production, as we now practice it, will inexorably lead to disaster: you can increasingly exploit resources at an ever-accelerating rate. On St. Matthew Island in Alaska, a transplanted herd of reindeer grew from 29 animals to 1,350 to 6,000. When the grass disappeared, the population collapsed and St. Matthew Island was turned into a barren rock from overgrazing.

“It hit me like a spear in the chest,” Anderson recalled.  A few weeks later, Anderson -- still reeling from his St. Paul moment -- unfurled his goal to turn Interface into a zero-impact corporation. Employees were stunned and confused: Interface’s environmental commitment usually revolved around reiterating that it hadn’t violated any laws.

The concept, though, proved catchy and soon employees became motivated by the idea. Engineering manager Graham Scott persuaded nylon supplier DuPont to remove an ounce of nylon in a square yard of carpet. It freed up the same amount of energy that would be needed to run a factory for half of a year. Maria Ceballos, an employee in a southern California, plant came up with a way to save four tons of yarn a year. Job satisfaction, reduced costs and an improved environmental footprint were improved all in one motion.

Progressively, the ethos began to rub off on investors and customers. One customer, for instance, complained about a stack of battered cardboard boxes in one factory. He thought it projected a slothful image. Interface execs then explained how the boxes could be used several times before recycling. The customer admitted that they were the most beautiful cardboard boxes he had ever seen.

In fact, it’s hard to get Anderson to say something bad about anyone. He thinks everyone can ultimately understand the logic of sustainability and when they do, they will become the concept’s best salesperson.  I asked him why some people in the U.S. seem to be becoming increasingly hostile to renewable energy and sustainability.

“I’m not really meeting those people,” he said. “With oil at $100 a barrel, recycling saves us money.”

The only person who he seems to have no hope for is the late Milton Friedman.

“That guy did more harm than you can imagine. Friedman said that businesses exist only to make profit for their shareholders,” Anderson said. “A company surely exists for some higher purpose than that.”

It is the kind of statement you want to believe, I thought to myself after he said it. But history shows that the short-term profit motive invariably undermines long-term plans.

Then I remembered a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with Steve Tobak, a friend, source and chip exec. Tobak, also an author, is slightly to the right of Tom DeLay. He hates Al Gore, sneers at government programs and believes most green technologies are uneconomical gimmicks. On this particular day, he was excited about a recent purchase.

“Best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

He was raving about his newsolarsystem.

Maybe Anderson is right.