The Hopeful Inventors
Article and interview by Katie Sosnowchik
From 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
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
WHAT GETS YOU EXCITED ABOUT GOING TO WORK?
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.
ISN'T THIS KIND OF RELATIONSHIP RARE?
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
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.
HAS WHAT YOU'RE DOING CHANGED FROM A FEW YEARS AGO?
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.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS HELPING TO TURN COMPANIES AROUND?
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
WILL THE NEW GENERATION OF LEADERSHIP EMERING IN CORPORATE
AMERICA IMPACT CHANGE?
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.
WHEN YOU ARE INVITED BY CEOS TO COME INTO THEIR COMPANIES, ARE
YOU BEING ACCEPTED BY THEIR STAFF?
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
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.
WHAT IS lT ABOUT THE MCDONOUGH BRAUNGART DESIGN PROTOCOL THAT
MAKES lT SO ATTRACTIVE TO COMPANIES?
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
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.
BY OFFERING THE MBDC PROTOCOL ON A NON -EXCLUSlVE INDUSTRY BASIS,
DO YOU HOPE TO ACCELERATE THE RATE OF CHANGE?
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.
IS MBDC WHERE YOU WANT lT TO BE TODAY?
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.
DO YOU EVER LOSE HOPE? DO YOU EVER GET OVERWHELMED AND THINK
THAT IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN?
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
WHERE DO YOU WANT TO BE TWO YEARS FROM NOW? FIVE YEARS FROM
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
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