The Hopeful Inventors

William McDonough
Michael Braungart

Article and interview by Katie Sosnowchik
Green@work May/June 2000

They met in 1991 at a rooftop reception in New York City. William A. McDonough, FAIA, had a few years earlier completed the headquarters design for the Environmental Defense Fund--one of the very first "sustainable" design and architecture projects to register on the environmental radar screen - and had since earned a reputation for intelligent ecological design based on that and subsequent projects. The party was held to celebrate the opening of the first U.S. office of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), a Hamburg, Germany-based scientific consultancy founded by Dr. Michael Braungart that develops ecologically optimized product concepts for its customers. Because of McDonough's pioneering work in the area of sustainable design, he was one of a few private individuals to receive an invitation for the evening-- an invitation that, because it was printed on a biodegradable diaper, proved too intriguing to resist.

When recounting that evening now, both can recite a detailed account of their single-minded con versation about toxicity and design even though nine years and, most likely, thousands of ideas have since passed between them. Their first joint venture was the creation of The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, written for the organizers of the 2000 World's Fair in Hannover, Germany. Today, they share a common business enterprise, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, which helps companies implement "eco-effective" design and commerce strategies. They also pursue their own individual practices. And they are currently working on a new book, Cradle to Cradle, to be released early next year.

The work McDonough and Braungart do at MBDC is diverse and far-reaching. As more companies recognize the necessity of incorporating environmental awareness into their thought processes and environ-mental actions into their business practices, they are turning to consultants like McDonough and Braungart to affect the changes required. In fact, the names McDonough and Braungart are, well, household ones to the CEOs of companies like Ford Motor Co., Herman Millet, Johnson International, Dow Chemical, Steelcase, Unilever, Nike and The Gap.

What attracts these executives to McDonough and Braungart's visionary ideology is the fact that it is grounded in sound business practices. It is possible to do well by doing good, the two insist, and prove it with a multi-faceted analysis that uses three highly interdepende.

categories to assess existing products and approach their redesign: ecology, social equity and economics

It also is not uncommon to hear corporate leeaders enthusiastically borrow some of McDonough and Braungart's more familiar terms and statements: "How can we love all of the children, of all species for all times?" "Design is the first signal of human intention." "For a strategy of change, we need a strategy of hope." "Waste equals food."

The list of MBDG clients is growing. As a result, has recently metamorphised into a more structured organization--complete with business and marketing managers, editors and administrative support personel -- in order to free up McDonough's and Braungart time to do what they do best: dream the big ideas will help them reinvent the world.


MCDONOUGH: I can't imagine any thing more exciting than the work we do together. When I wake up the morning, I think about my family; as soon as shift gears and start moving toward the work world. all I have to do is think about Michael and his mind the kinds of things he's talked about the last time he and I had a conversation, and I'm completely recharged fore any sense of where the work might bog me down. It's exciting because we're inventing every time we talk to each other. Our conversations augment of odd because they'll go wherever they need to we'll be creating new things as we speak. And all of the work day is about putting these things in practice. When Michael and I talk, it's not necessarly about day-to-day business issues. We have terrific people around us who worry about those thing a bit. Our time together is optimized by doing miniturizations So we're basically talking about new projects and new ideas all the time. That's where we live

BRAUNGART: I come from the chemistry side is able to put things in the bigger picture, to co ideas with cultural and aesthetic perspectives. Remember, nothing is designed for indoor use. It's only designed to be cheap and to work fore a certain period of time. We have fun because we can take anything and reinvent it from a paradigm of waste equals food.

We have a positive, creative relationship. What helps is we can put things on the table without worrying that it needs to be perfect. It's a new chance to forget the past 25 years of gloom and doom. We gain so much information from each other -- we believe we can reinvent everything around us, because right now everything is simply not designed for human purposes. It's designed only fore financial short-term benefits and, in a lot of cases, not even for that because it creates liability problems.


MCDONOUGH: Yes, it's very rare, And it's fun. Michael was once asked by someone, "Why won't you work with us? Why do you only work with Bill?" And I've been asked that question, too. Why do I only work with Michael? We both have the same answer, which is when we talk to each other, the other person responds to an idea with another idea. It's always interactive, it's always going somewhere.

BRAUNGART: We don't propose, for example, a guilt thing. We don't want to simply reduce, avoid ore minimize. As Bill says, if you start off with 100 percent bad, how attractive is it to be 90 percent bad? Instead we ask, how good are we compared to what we want

to be? And so it's a positive agenda and it creates a lot of synergy. Instead of having a car that gets 10 miles per gallon, and then coming up with a car that gets 12 miles per gallon how attractive is that? Instead, ask how much fun it is per gallon. And so we create a challenge

for industries to come up with a totally different type of quality. Take a television. Back in 1986, I started asking, "Do you really want to own 4,360 different chemicals? Or do you want to watch TV?" And people said, "Oh, that's communism."

But today, it's no longer the case. Ownership is no longer a religion. And so people now ask, "What is important to us in our lives?" And then they understand that owning hazardous waste is not what they're interested in. And so we come back to the idea of services and go to companies like Dow Chemical, and we propose to them the concept of renting solvents. When we created the idea in '89, nobody thought it would work. And now paradigms have changed and we see companies gaining a big competitive advantage with the concept.


MCDONOUGH: Not really. Michael and I first collaborated intensely on the Hannover Principles for Expo 2000, the World's Faire. Since then we've shared our ideas with a lot of different people. And our ideas are now becoming very public, which is the best form of peer review. Ideas like the product of service concept, the eco-leasing concept and the concepts of biological and technical nutrients. So we're seeing this transformation become accepted. What's exciting is that we're expanding on these thoughts and we're now at the point where TIME magazine even says we've developed a unified theory that, in a demonstrable and practical way, is changing the design of the world.


MCDONOUGH: What our clients tell us they're excited about is the fact that we're actually doing things, we're not just talking about it. We've made products, the product we did for DesignTex was a huge success in the marketplace and still is. It's inspired a lot of people here and in Europe. It's been pointed to as the thing that sets the standard for others to live up to. There's also Michael's work, especially with the chemical industry, which is very well respected. And there's also the buildings created by all the partners at William McDonough + Partners. The buildings are the most productive buildings in America according to Business Week. We're all working together to manifest these things physically. We're actually taking ideas and putting them into practice. I think that's what's getting everybody so excited.


MCDONOUGH: The fact that we now have products that we can point to means that younger executives who have seen these things and have been waiting for the positive examples because they knew in their hearts and their minds that this must be possible some day they can now stand up and say, "I'm going to go in that direction." Because a company, for example, like Herman Miller, which went out on a limb to devery something, is finding that it's increasing its performance by over 20 percent. They did it because it was the right thing to do. But now the data is starting to come in. And the data is compelling. When a business starts to perform at a 20 percent increase and all they did was move to a new kind of facility, you have to ask, "Why is this happening?" And so young executives are in a very strong position to say, "That's what I want. Go find it, go get it, let's do it."

BRAUNGART: On another side, the chemical industrytry, which thought we would be their biggest enemy 10 years ago, now understands that we can help ther with their brand chemicals.

MCDONOUGH: Taking a positive approach honors the need to develop better products in order to put them in closed technical cycles so that all people can

BRAUNGART: Sometimes we do have great debates and discussions. For example, with the car industry. The chemical industry understood after Bhopal that they cannot continue like they do. But the big crisis for the car industry is still ahead. The question is, can com panies transform into selling transportation instead of selling cars before a crisis or do they need that crisis?

There's also the connection with environmental groups. For example, in Europe we still work with Greenpeace to make the change, and we've learn that it's good to work with all good-willing people together, wherever they are. We're not interested to be right or to dominate others. We have to bring something to the table where we have a strong qualification, but it doesn't make sense not to work with other people because then you don't come up with products and new types of services.

We see a lot of cases, family businesses where family members still play a role. they are far more sensitive to these things than simply thinking about puree profit and shareholder value because, in the longer term, they wonder about the legacy they will leave behind. Do they really want to be in charge and respon sible fore all this destruction? Family businesses play a real key role and have a very important function.

MCDONOUGH: It's interesting to note that they're perfectly able to say that they wish to create value while making the transformation. So it's not a question of doing bad business, it's a question of doing magnificent business. It's not about feeling guilty or bad, it's about change. It's about high speed change. It's about profitable change, for both short-term and long-term agendas.


BRAUNGART: It depends on the management structure. If the management itself invites people and not forces them. then they get the smartest and most talented young people together to make a change. We don't claim to these people that they are bad and we are good. We develop systems using natural principles, but they are synthetic systems and they're not built on avoidance minimization and guilt things, because nature doesn't know guilt. Nature is wasting energy and raw materials but the right energy

sources and the right materials, putting them back into cycles. We do the same for industrial metabolism. It allows us not to blame people. They have to bring a lot of things to the table. We do not know how to produce a car, basically, but we know what can be a new concept fore a car to bring that car back into a technical cycle.

MCDONOUGH: What happens when we work with companies is, essentially, we just open up the oppor tunity. If we're dealing with someone who is at the end of their career and doesn't want to start dealing with these new ideas, we don't ask that person to change their career at the last moment and start to adopt these principles or try to put them into play. It wouldn't be fair to them because it's not something they necessarily want to do.

What we offer them is the opportunity to open these issues to their younger staff, who may or may not want to be engaged that's what I think Michael meant by opening up the opportunities to volunteers. There are plenty of young people dying to get involved in this. As soon as the company opens up the opportunity to them and asks who wants to work in this venue with these ideas_then they just allow those people to rise to the occasion. You see people who are about to design their own career the next 20 years of their career around these ideas. And then you see how exciting things can get.

BRAUNGART: There are, too, a lot of older people who are far more interested in the personal, far more value oriented. Oriented toward children. And so, we get all the good-willing people together, wherever they come from.


BRAUNGART: It's more that the companies become a part of it. They understand that without capitalism there's no economically reasonable product. Left wing people think that without social aspects there's nothing there. And environmental people see only one component. So we don't blame people we take them from wherever they come from if they're intent to change things. And make lt attractive. If you look at the environmental and health considerations, you see that production itself gets cheaper. Some of the organizations in Europe that were originally against the protocol were the trade unions, because the workers would lose the extra money they got as subsidies to compensate for the damage of working with carcinogens.

MCDONOUGH: The real value of the fractal is that lt honors every participant, no matter where they're participating. So just because you're an extremely socially interested person, lt doesn't mean that you need to feel guilty that you're not taking care of the environment or business right away. If another per son is extremely involved in the economics of some- thing, you honor their role, but at the same time they can't ignore those other players. That's the difference. The fractal has been really useful because lt honors everybody as long as they understand they're part of a larger picture. It's when they see themselves as being the center of the universe and that other people don't matter, that we get into trouble. It's critical that environmentally intelligent products be economical, and it's up to the people who focus on economics to determine how to make lt economical and we delight in their participation.

I think it's so important, as Michael points out, to also engage all the other players. The fact is we work very closely with Greenpeace. We need to hear what Greenpeace is thinking. We need to know what they're concerned about. We need to be able to address their concerns just as much as we address the concerns of business. And it's going to take all of us. The sooner we get underway, and the more we communicate, the better. Because this idea that everybody has been focused on their own agenda means, as we put it, they've been sort of timefully mindless. They're in a big hurry and they're mindless of their effects in the world and on other people. If we look for a kind of timeless mindfulness, then we need to be mindful of everyone's concerns. It's very inclusionary, and there's a great deal of drama in the pleasure of discovering the fact that we all are working for the same thing.


MCDONOUGH: Yes, it's also one of the requests of some of our major clients. For example, Ford Motor Co. has asked that we work with all their suppliers and that there be no excelusives per se in the auto industry so that everyone has a chance to put these protocols into effect. We recognize that our protocol has become a kind of standard that people really like, because lt gives them something to focus on. And there doesn't seem to be another standard like lt that has the same quality and characteristics. The fact that a company like Ford would request their suppliers to engage in this way is very exciting fore us. And I think an appropriate thing, too.

BRAUNGART: And the interesting thing is when we can bring materials back into cycles it can strengthen the competitiveness of an industry. We have learned, too, that we have far more to do than we have ability and still keep the quality of our work. So that's a reason why we go back and do training, education and management support. we are helping companies learn, too, instead of doing the whole thing by ourselves.


MCDONOUGH: Five years ago,both of us were working within universities. Michael as a professor of material science in Europe and I as a dean of architec ture, because we felt lt was important to communi cate these ideas to students. I think we're now fully engaged in the work.

BRAUNGART: lt was important that the things we were doing were scientifically based and that young people could learn about these things. But now we want to focus on doing things. Compared to the speed of destruction, though, we are far too slow and we are concerned about that. We either make the change now_in the next 10, 20, as late as 30 years_ or there's no opportunity, because then the earth destroys itself. At a certain point, if you add more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, lt doesn't count what you do because the water vapor, which comes up in the atmosphere from heating up the climate, leads to an additional greenhouse effect. And then carbon dioxide cannot be stored any more in the same quantities in the ocean, because the vast majority is stored there. And the vegetation, which then is destroyed by thunderstorms, does not allow itself anymore of the carbon dioxide. So if we reduce carbon dioxide emissions but don't find a solution for dealing with materials and energy in the next 20 to 30 years, we simply can forget it. And if you look at the number of species which are disappearing and how fast this has happened, then definitely we can not be content. If we continue like that, we will need to give up everything we achieved in the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution_basic human rights. Because then even 200 million people on this planet will be far too many because we will be unable to feed the population. So that's actually the point where we are. We have some doubt whether we actually can make it. But we have fared much faster than we expected.


MCDONOUGH: I find the opposite. There are so many opportunities that the prospect is magnificent.

so the glass is half full? not half empty?

MCDONOUGH: The glass is half full. I think that's really part of the excitement of our message. We're not here to say, let's see how we can be less bad tomorrow. That's not that exciting. When we look at

the new products and materials that are needed to affect a world that we can all delight in for all the children of all species for all times, you realize that just about everything can be redesigned. There's just so much to do, it's exhilarating.

BRAUNGART: It's not only about hope. Companies and organizations are catching up with these design principles. People have put a lot on the table to make a change. And so we need to work together with all the good-willing people wherever they come from. And they all have hopes. We are amazed to see how fast change can happen.


MCDONOUGH: I think Michael's point about maintaining quality is the key issue. We want to be at a place that holds dear the quality of the protocol. We don't want to just take the ideas and use them as part of a language. The whole eco-leasing concept is not to lease toxic materials and then take them back, that's not what it's about. It's about redesign.

As we expand, some fabulous people from some major companies are joining us. They've looked at all these different protocols and have decided that we represent the core. So we want to hold onto that and we also want to train thousands of others in lt as well.

* * *

Back to Bioneers home page

Back to Green Mac home page