What does it take to commit professionally and philanthropically to advancing climate solutions in Georgia? Roy Richards, Jr. shares his journey in this article.
Roy Richards, Jr. is the former CEO and current chair of the board of Southwire Company, a committed climate philanthropist, and a co-chair of the Drawdown Georgia Leadership Council. He recently joined John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation and a founding member of Drawdown Georgia to share his story, including the epiphany that inspired him to commit to advancing climate solutions in his professional and philanthropic work, and the Georgia climate initiative that has him most excited about the future.
Richards grew up on a small farm in Carrollton, Georgia, where he played in the woods and paddled and fished in the creeks--everything that a kid can do outdoors in the rural South. He points to these formative experiences as the source of the great affection for the natural world that he still feels to this day.
Southwire and a New Focus as a Sustainable Business
In the early 1980s, Richards joined Southwire, a now 70-year-old Georgia-based manufacturer of wire and cable for electrical distribution. He acknowledges that in the 1980s and 90s, the company was run as it had always been run, which means, he said, “a lot of disregard for environmental stewardship.” Government regulators and environmental authorities were seen as villains by many large companies at the time.
But over time, Richards began to appreciate the other side of environmental regulation. He listened as regulators made their case against Southwire’s practices at the time, and the importance of protecting the clean air, land, and water of the surrounding communities. The role of environmental stewardship in protecting the streams and lakes Richards had fished in as a child, and all of the local plants and wildlife that he valued so highly became clear, as did the importance of environmental regulations to ensure that manufacturers would act as responsible environmental stewards.
From that moment on, Southwire began to consciously and deliberately change the way the company did business in order to become that kind of responsible environmental steward.
Leading the Way in Advancing Climate Solutions
It was also around this time that Richards met Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, best known for transforming the company in the name of sustainability. A few years prior, Anderson had experienced the same awakening about the important role that industry leaders can play in advancing climate solutions and fighting environmental degradation. Richards credits Ray Anderson with lighting the way for Southwire on their journey towards a new, climate-conscious approach to manufacturing, and with making their progress possible.
Today, Southwire leads the way on climate and sustainability in Georgia. “We're not going to be laggards in this business,” Richards said. “We want to be the avant-garde, we want to be progressive. We want to be on the front end of that change, both in terms of materials we use, how we build our specifications, and the processes we use to manufacture our products.”
Richards believes that clinging to an outmoded, 20th-century business model is a recipe for failure when seeking to satisfy new customers and new shareholders who demand sustainability, a closed loop, a smaller carbon footprint. “I don't think that those backward attitudes will take you successfully into the new century,” he said.
Scaling Climate Solutions Collaboratively with the Drawdown Georgia Business Compact
In his newer role as a co-chair of the Drawdown Georgia Leadership Council, Richards is most excited about the potential impact of the Drawdown Georgia Business Compact. He explains, “Now a critical mass of Georgia companies are all working on sustainability, they're working on their carbon footprint, they're working on drawing down their CO2 emissions--not just offsetting, but drawing down emissions.”
The opportunities that the Compact offers for businesses to work collectively and learn best practices from one another are another exciting aspect to Richards. As a business leader himself, he is well aware that no one company has all the answers, and believes that, when it comes to climate change, we’re all in this together. He sees the sharing of knowledge as essential if we hope to solve for climate in Georgia.
Watch the video of his full conversation with John Lanier below.