Robbing the Cradle to Cradle? William McDonough a Saint… and a Sinner

Cover of William McDonough and Michael Braungart's book Cradle to CradleAs I’m still getting back into the groove of regular writing, I’m a bit late to the game on Danielle Sack’s profile of/hit piece on architect and “cradle to cradle” guru William McDonough in Fast Company. As you might imagine, this one’s already made the rounds of the green blogosphere, and most of these posts involve a healthy degree of introspection regarding McDonough’s place as a “green messiah,” and the worth of the ideas he’s spent much of his career promoting.

So, let’s get some issues out of the way. No, McDonough and partner Michael Braungart did not originally conceive of the concept with which they’re most famously associated: as Hunter Lovins notes in the article, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase [cradle to cradle] 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.” McDonough doesn’t live in a “green” house. He’s likely blown some deals with companies like Interface and Nike by demanding too much money, and making unreasonable intellectual property claims. Some of his projects haven’t lived up to the hoopla (if they’ve been finished at all). And, for all I know, he may well be an arrogant, self-serving jerk (I don’t know the man).

With all of that said, though, my primary reaction is “OK… but does any of this really matter?”

No doubt McDonough, like the rest of us, is a flawed human being, and perhaps many of us have been willing to grant him hero status prematurely (we’ve certainly sung his praises numerous times here at sustainablog). I think if we get caught up in the “battle of Bill,” though, we miss the more important issues here: the relevance and importance of cradle to cradle design, the legitimacy of certification processes for “green” products, and the relationship of these concepts to consumption in general.

Cradle to Cradle: Materialism by Another Name?

I do think cradle to cradle is an important concept, and the book that lays out McDonough and Braungart’s ideas about its applications should be studied by anyone interested in waste reduction and resource conservation. As a friend pointed out to me in the not-so-distant past, though, cradle to cradle itself deserves scrutiny: does this framework as laid out by McDonough and Braungart imply that our current levels of consumption are just fine; we just need to make sure we’re consuming products that can re-enter natural or industrial loops? Does this concept disregard the other resources that must be consumed in production and recovery? Does it suggest that we can’t overcome our equation of “abundance” with “materialism?”

I do think those are question we have to ask as we consider as we reconsider the relationship between natural resources, manufacturing processes, and consumer culture. As someone looking for ways to expand the relevance of environmentalism beyond the “choir,” I think c-to-c provides an important early step in transitioning our culture of consumption away from some of its most wasteful characteristics.Β  I think it provides a compelling framework for designers as they seek to combine “eco-effectiveness” with more traditional design elements. It challenges all of us to look at the bigger picture of our choices surrounding product purchase and disposal.

But it’s not the “be-all, end-all” of sustainable thinking consumption. It’s a place to start, and a framework for shifting attitudes and consciousness.

The Issue of Certification

With that said, I think the concerns surrounding the legitimacy of cradle-to-cradle certification are among the most important issues raised in this article. “Green” certification is in its infancy, so if one of the earliest models proves less than reliable, that’s a setback for certification processes in general (though not a fatal one). Cradle-to-cradle will have to compete with other models, and I’d like to believe that those with the greatest degree of transparency and expert oversight will survive. If McDonough’s guilty of the charges leveled against the c-to-c process, that will likely do more damage to him personally than to the push for reliable certification and labeling frameworks.

McDonough and Braungart have done admirable work in bringing the cradle-to-cradle concept to a wider audience, and deserve credit for that. Let’s hope that criticism lobbed at McDonough causes him to rethink any missteps, improve processes associated with his certication scheme, and maybe reconsider how to play nice with others.

But let’s not get caught up in Bill McDonough’s potential character flaws. We need to focus on the ideas themselves, and how well they work in addressing resouce conservation, environmental impact, and our relationship to the things we consume. Let’s make sure that discussion continues… regardless of whom gets credit for their creation and promotion.

  1. Aaron Szymanski

    Just as we look back at the previous generations’ big contribution as the integration of computers into daily life, sustainability will be what our kids and grandkids will think about when they look back as us.

    In this light I think that McDonough will be a largely forgotten figure seen as a self promoter who will get credit for seeing a trend and being one of the first to deploy it as a sales tool.

  2. Bobby B.

    I want to comment on your phrase “he may well be an arrogant, self-serving jerk”, even though that is not the central theme of your post.

    Through some training in how to interview – and how to be interviewed – I have learned a little something about shameless self-promotion. Humble people who do their jobs well tend to wait in line indefinitely when seeking promotions and/or new positions. In some cases, the worker bees have so much value in a lower position that promoting them might disrupt the colony. Gregarious people on the other hand have a natural ability to make a connection with people, which results in the audience being able to overlook his/her shortcomings. Some people just know how to sell a product, especially when that product is themselves. Rush Limbaugh uses the phrase “symbolism over substance” to describe this technique. I call it slick marketing. Whatever the proper terminology may be, we do live in a society where being able to dazzle others with brilliance tends to take a back seat to being able to baffle them with BS.

  3. Whitney Y.

    I just feel like this blog is ridiculous. Most of the most influential people in the world were “arrogant self serving jerks” or otherwise are eccentric beyond belief. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolfe, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Michaelangelo, Gaugin, Leo Tolstoy, Edgar Allen Poe, Tennessee Williams, Beehtoven, Tolstoy, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Francis Ford Coppola…to name a few. I don’t understand where this slick marketing is coming from…obviously there is going to be marketing or no one else would know about it. All of these people changed the world. Also, do you REALLY think that ford would have hired him to do the Ford Rouge Center if he wasn’t qualified or knew what he was doing? …..ridiculous blog. So short-sighted.

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