William McDonough Interview: We Are Not a Green Standard, We Are a Quality Standard

Late last month at the Dwell on Design 2011 conference in Los Angeles, CA, we had the chance to chat with William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle.  We covered an array of topics, ranging from inspirational architecture to Arnold Schwarzenegger (out of all people), and from an open source type of model for Cradle to Cradle (C2C) to the barriers regulation has on pushing sustainability forward.  Here are a few snippets from our conversation.

3P: Let’s start of with an easy question, (or perhaps a difficult one).  Since, we are in the Los Angeles area at the moment, what is your favorite piece of design or architecture here that incorporates C2C principles.

William McDonough: That’s a great question.  Well, it’s going to sound strange probably.  But I really like Frank Gehry‘s works.

3P: The one right down the street, the Walt Disney Concert Hall?

WM: I love all of it.  I just think it is so delightful to see people, let their elbows free.  I think the exuberance of it all is really exciting to me.  It’s a signal of the abundance of diversity and creative expression.

I think that is something we need right now.  It would be nice if all that exuberance and abundance was connected to a deep ethos of planetary responsibility.

But, I’d so much rather have exciting architecture that causes one to stop, breathe, and reflect on the potential of the human mind, the craft, and exploring things. Then we can bring in this other layering if we want to.

I’d rather have that dialogue right now than only the other one, which is starting at such a basic level, that we start rearranging stuff on the Titanic, trying to be less bad with ordinary stuff.

I am working right now at both the levels- with the most wealthy clients in the world, but also the poorest.  I spend half my time designing for people that have nothing.  You need that same creative force that exists in a building like Disney [Walt Disney Concert Hall] to actually tackle that most prosaic of problems.

3P: Can you tell us a little bit about the Product Innovation Institute and Cradle to Cradle Certification?

WM: For about six years now, we have been working with clients like Herman Miller and Steelcase, to assess their progress and put them against a register.  So we had this private quality standard we were executing with our clients.

And then almost two years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked me to come see him in Sacrament.  And he said (paraphrased):

As a Republican I find it quite astonishing to note that you are a very small company dealing with very large company. What you and Micheal [Braungart] have done is transform very large companies and their products without a regulation, without a government grant, and without a tax dollar.  They are just doing it.  They are not being forced to do it, they are just doing it.  And they are making money or they wouldn’t be in business.

So how did you do that?  Because I am a Republican.  What’s not to like for me?
You are doing a standard that is higher than any other government standard in the world.

We are not a green standard, we are a quality standard. We’re different, we’re multi dimensional.  It’s people doing the highest standards in the world.

We realized we don’t have an invention, that’s why we gave it away.  It’s not really intellectual property that what we have.  This idea that things are designed to go back to nature or industry for ever which is our articulation of these two metabolisms are actually a discovery not an invention.

3P: So all this you have come up with is given away for free?

WM: It went into a not for profit.  We’ve moved it from the commercial world to a not for profit world in order for it to become a global standard.  We thought that would be more appropriate.  It’s as if Bill Gates gave DOS away, or turned DOS into Linux.  We gave it away, since we felt it was the right thing to do.

3P: Earlier you mentioned doing this (C2C design) without regulation and taxes.  What are some of the challenges that current regulation have over designing sustainably?  Are there any walls or barriers that regulation put up, that actually hinder sustainability?

WM: Oh absolutely, you bet.  I think a really good example would be lead.  Is lead a good or a bad?  It’s just a mineral.  Is carbon a good or a bad?  It’s just a material.  These materials have no value accept for the ones that we give them.

So when you see a regulation against lead, because lead is a bad in a regulators mind, what does that mean?  You are not telling us what is good, you are just tell us what you don’t want, not what you do want.

In C2C, we would say lead in the biosphere is a nightmare, it is a neuro toxin. That’s not okay.  But lead in a computer, it’s necessary, as a whole bunch of other strange rare earths.  If they are always kept within their technical cycles and never released into the biosphere, it’s fine. If the computer never goes to China smashed next to a river, releasing the lead, then it’s okay, it’s a technical nutrient.  The lead becomes solder again or something else useful.  It’s no longer toxic, it’s a nutrient or technology. We are going to need these materials for our technology.   If you want to have a computer, you are going to need these materials.

3P:  Could the same be said for carbon?

WM: The problem carbon is that everyone thinks we have an energy problem, we don’t.  We have plenty of energy.  We have a carbon problem.  Carbon is a material, so we have a material problem, not an energy problem.

We have carbon in the atmosphere.  That is a material in the wrong place problem.  It’s just like what I said about the lead.  Lead in the biosphere is not good.  Carbon in the atmosphere (over natural levels) is a problem.

So it’s not that carbon is a good or a bad.  Carbon is carbon, If you don’t like carbon, if you want to be zero carbon, then you might as well shoot yourself, dry up and blow away because you are carbon.

Carbon in your body–that’s good thing.  In a tree, it’s good.  In the atmosphere, it’s a bad.  Nature wants to sequester carbon in biota.  And when we burn it, we release it.  It’s the wrong system.  The problem I have with carbon as a bad thing issue, is that people go out and say they want to be zero carbon.  You see it everywhere.

All these corporate reports say they want zero carbon.  Well that is ridiculous, because you are not telling us what you are, you are telling us what you are not.  Think of that as a commercial proposition, imagine walking into a grocery there is a jar sitting there with a lid on it saying it’s not carbon.  That is ridiculous.  It’s an empty jar.

So we prefer to talk about 100% renewable instead of zero carbon.  When you say zero carbon, you are not positively defined.

Who is going to articulate what we do want to be?  That is what we are trying to do.

3P: I know who have to give a keynote right now, so thank you very much for taking the time to chat!

WM: Oh, you’re welcome!



Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.