WILLIAM MCDONOUGH: Remaking the Way We Make Things
Interview by Mary Hoff
In a nutshell, what do you mean by Cradle to Cradle® design?
We use the term “Cradle to Cradle design” to refer to an intentional system of design and decision making based on a fundamentally new view of the world.
For billions of years, we’ve had the biological world with biological metabolism—living things requiring growth, free energy from outside the system and an open metabolism of chemicals operating for the benefit of the organisms and their reproduction. In the last 5,000 years we’ve created another metabolism we call the “technical metabolism”—the stuff we humans make from metals, most plastics, etc. We realized we could design this parallel metabolism in ways that could continually celebrate growth that doesn’t harm the biosphere. So Cradle to Cradle calls for materials in continuous reuse cycles with reverse logistics, renewable power systems, water that’s clean enough to drink and social fairness. We see all materials as nutrients and eliminate the concept of waste. We’re saying, “Don’t even think about waste; waste doesn’t exist.” How can we make everything a beneficial nutrient to either biology or technology? We don’t want to see things that accrue and will become persistent in mothers’ milk. We can design things so they don’t have to be that way. Companies love the approach because it is very profitable to do and eliminates the need for regulations because there is nothing to fear.
Have you ever met a true Cradle to Cradle entity?
Oh, sure. Life itself knows how to do this. A tree is a Cradle to Cradle thing.
As far as human organizations, Cradle to Cradle is really about our aspirational design intentions being manifested. To be perfect Cradle to Cradle is very ambitious. The more complex the product, the harder it is to do. But we see marvelous examples of this ambition manifesting itself. For example, Shaw Industries, part of Bershire Hathaway and the world’s largest carpet company, retooled so the face fiber and the backing are safe and easily recycled. Now Shaw can see its carpets are actually its future perfectly prepared raw material and relationship assets on its customers’ floors. I call it “endlessly resourceful.” With Cradle to Cradle, everything is seen as an asset. Liabilities are seen as bad design. It is literally “good” business.
How has Cradle to Cradle design changed since you wrote the book in 2002?
It’s evolved to become more and more subtle and more and more detailed as we work with more and more industries. The core of it, however, has been very consistent since we wrote the book. Actually though, the first step was writing the Hannover Principles in 1992. We wouldn’t change any of them.
The typical approach to eco-innovation is to start with metrics—then tactics, strategies and then goals. The problem with that is, if you start with measurement you try to be less bad. People think being less bad is good. This isn’t math, with two negative numbers becoming positive; you are still bad, just less so. Is that as good as we’re going to get?
What we start with instead is value. How do we love all of the children of all species for all time? That’s our value set. We can take it with us wherever we go and it stimulates dynamic creativity and prosperity.
How does Cradle to Cradle deal with energy and climate dimensions of sustainability?
We don’t have an energy problem on this planet—we have a material problem. We are putting carbon, a material, in the wrong place. Carbon belongs in soil, not in the atmosphere. For billions of years Earth has been taking atmospheric carbon and sequestering it in the soil and things grow and growth is good. We come along with the first industrial revolution and change all that. So we work with companies like Walmart to become 100% renewably powered as soon as it is cost-effective.
How would a business get started with the Cradle to Cradle approach?
Call me up and we’ll get started. Sometimes people wake up in the morning and think, “Why wouldn’t I want to be values-based while I do great business and inspire my children and my customers?” Managers can deal with the triple bottom line profitability, but we also work with our executive clients who understand that what.business leaders do is create revenue. So we also design for what we call the “triple top line,” because the real question is, “How can we create new value to our enterprise?”
Your home page spotlights the message, "Being less bad is not being good." What do you mean by that?
It’s a slide I was showing for all the people who feel that if they can reduce, avoid, minimize, go to zero, they are being good. I’m saying that’s inadequate. They are also explicitly telling their children and the market that it would be better if they did not even exist. Sure, it’s better to minimize energy systems to reduce carbon emissions and be efficient. But it’s insufficient. You’re still what you are saying you don’t want to be. You are driving in the wrong direction, just slower. You’re not good, just less bad. You can’t get there that way. That was yesterday. I’m talking about tomorrow. It’s time to turn around.
Look at Six Sigma and TQM. TQM is really total quantity management; Deming was a statistician. Six Sigma is really hyperefficiency—it’s making things perfectly. But what if you are making the wrong thing? Then you are perfectly wrong. The real question is, what are you making? It should be about quality. It should be about aspirations. It’s the joy of principled activity in the world of practical and prosperous affairs.
Cradle to Cradle® is a registered trademark of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.
ARCHITECT WILLIAM MCDONOUGH
William McDonough is an award-winning architect and co-author with Michael Braungart of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a groundbreaking treatise on designing products and processes in a way that eliminates the concept of waste and toxic materials, and other unsustainable components of manufacturing and consumption. He spoke with Momentum and Terry Waghorn of Forbesabout his thoughts on designing for sustainability.
VIDEO: The Wisdom of Designing Cradle to Cradle
Green-minded architect and designer William McDonough asks what our buildings and products would look like if designers took into account "all children, all species, for all time." Watch the video on YouTube
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Last modified on January 23, 2012