One man who is well down the path to building a sustainable business is the entrepreneur and industrialist Ray Anderson. In 1973, aged 38, he founded the company Interface to make floor coverings. By 1994 he had built it into a highly successful global company with sales in more than 100 countries, manufacturing facilities on four continents, and a turnover approaching a billion dollars a year. At 60 years old and with a new generation of management in place, he was ready to retire. But then Interface started to get asked to include a statement of its environmental policy in its bid quotations. Anderson then heard from one of his top sales managers that a certain environmental consultant to a certain major customer had said, "Interface just doesn't get it"! And that piece of business was slipping away. Anderson said "Interface doesn't get what"? (Rather confirming the consultant's comment.)
But then he read Paul Hawken's seminal book The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability and had an epiphany. He realised that he and his 'successful' company were an integral part of the destructive impact the industrial system is having on the environment. "A new definition of success burst into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept."
Hawken made the central point of his book in three parts: 1) The living systems and the life support systems of Earth are in decline; we are degrading the biosphere; unchecked, it will continue to decline and we will lose the biosphere. It contains and supports all of life. 2) The biggest culprit in this decline is the industrial system - the linear, take-make-waste industrial system, driven by fossil fuel-derived energy, wasteful and abusive. 3) The only institution on Earth that is large enough, powerful enough, wealthy enough, pervasive enough, influential enough to lead humankind out of the mess it is making for itself is the same institution that is doing the most damage, the institution of business and industry.
Thus Anderson found for himself a whole new purpose in life - in his 61st year.
What is interesting about this story is the way in which Anderson was able to convert what was becoming a problem (Interface's perceived lack of environmental credentials) into an opportunity (increased profits, reduced costs and, most importantly, a greater preparedness for the high-cost petroleum world to come). And this of course is where the capitalism is at its best - in exploiting the opportunities offered by discontinuous change.