Perhaps most important, Anderson says, Interface developed a way to track its progress along the road to sustainability. "We do it by measuring the total amount of stuff extracted from the earth, including by all our suppliers and including all the energy we use, in order to produce a dollar's worth of revenue," Anderson says. Over the past five years, he says, Interface "has cut the total from 1.59 pounds per dollar of revenue to 1.21 pounds per dollar, or roughly a 24 percent reduction." The goal is to get the number down to zero. A truly sustainable operation, Anderson adds, should leave "zero footprints on the earth."

And although the transformation of Interface may have sprung first from
a personal vision by its CEO, Anderson is first to admit that the evolution continues only because it is good business. "The goodwill that has been engendered in the marketplace has just amazed us," he says. "I had no idea that day in '94 that it was anything more than the right thing to do." Best of all, Anderson says, Interface's success in selling its more environmentally friendly products to architects and designers has "in turn moved our competitors" in the flooring products industry to do the same.

There is still a long way to go, Anderson says, both in Interface's own operations and in the industrial system as a whole. What few gains have been made in the corporate world remain fragile, and the threats to progressive companies are many. Increasingly fierce global competition can exert huge pressure, especially within labor-intensive industries. The clothing manufacturer Levi's enjoyed one of the best reputations among labor activists of any U.S. employer only five years ago. Since then, competition from low-wage producers abroad has forced the company to close most of its U.S. factories. Similarly, global consolidation within many industries threatens funding for social responsibility programs, especially in sectors that are in decline.