Corporate Social Responsibility vs. True Sustainability



Since this article was written this past summer, Ray Anderson, CEO and Founder of Interface, has passed away.  He will be sorely missed and we all learned a great deal from him, about the right way to do business and the right way to do life.  Thanks Ray.

Interface Carpeting is one company that has made a huge, qualitative shift from being an extractive and wasteful, old paradigm company, to a sustainable, zero-net carbon and zero waste company in less than 20 years.  It is the largest commercial carpet manufacturer in the world and is a groundbreaking example of what is possible when a company is willing to go "All-In" on sustainability.

Ray Anderson, CEO and Founder of Interface (who is also prominently featured in the documentary "The Corporation") likes to tell a story about a visitor to his company.  She was a consulting client at their LaGrange, Georgia manufacturing facility, going through a very difficult time of understanding and integrating the paradigm of sustainability.

On a coffee break, she stepped out of the conference room and walked down to the factory floor.  Now you should know that at the Interface HQ in LaGrange Georgia, visitors are encouraged to speak with any employee that they come across, from the janitor to the CFO.

She approached one of the forklift operators, who was also on his coffee break and they struck up a conversation.  She asked the fellow what it was that he did there in the factory.  The forklift operator replied, “I come to work each day and save the planet.”   When she asked him what he meant, he told her about his role in the company to reduce waste and save raw materials, and how this ultimately made the planet better for his children.

As the visitor stood there with her mouth gaping wide open in complete shock, the forklift driver said to her, “I don’t want to be rude, but if I don’t get this roll of carpet over to the next machine right now, our efficiency numbers are going to be way off”, and off he went.

A culture of sustainability creates surprises and consequences that we can’t even begin to fully articulate.   When day-in and day-out, line level employees, embrace even mundane tasks like driving a forklift because they are “saving the planet”, a sense of loyalty and vision gets baked into a company in a way that no amount of money or team-building workshops or fancy corporate pep rallies can mimic.

Herein lies the difference between “Corporate Social Responsibility” and true sustainability.  The two things are so different that they really shouldn’t exist in the same universe.  It’s like the comparing the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits.  Sure, they both come from England, but the similarity pretty much ends there.  Corporate Social Responsibility is about having the company “give back” to the community or give to the United Way or try to go clean up a disaster area.  Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with that and there’s a place for it.  But it doesn’t produce value to the company in any tangible or measurable way.

Sustainability, on the other hand, drives value on multiple levels.  Even sustainable organizations aren’t perfect.  Sustainability is not about perfect.  It’s about a mindset, or a paradigm.  When the forklift operator cuts the chat over a coffee break short because the efficiency numbers are important to him personally, that is a driver of value.  When he comes to work every day to save the planet for his kids, that has a demonstrable impact on the company’s bottom line.   People like that are what separate the good, from the truly great.  And they are rule rather than the exception when we look at great organizations.


Mitch Fine is a Sustainable Investing Specialist and “Progressive Capitalist” living in North Texas.  He is passionate about the ability of business to become a part of the “solution” to creating a healthy, peaceful, just, and sustainable planet.

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