10 Things I've Learned from Leaders in Sustainability

Cradle to Cradle

10 Things I've Learned from Leaders in Sustainability

The things I've learned in the last 10 years are things I've learned from my colleagues, especially Michael Braungart and the people I work with every day at MBDC and William McDonough + Partners, as well as those at Cherokee Investment Partners and VantagePoint Venture Partners. I have also been learning from my amazing clients - large and small companies and governments, including cities such as Amsterdam and San Francisco, and the state of California. I have learned, too, from the new leaders of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. To all these amazing people and organizations, I am grateful for their wisdom, vision and spirit of collaboration.

1. I have learned that design is the first signal of human intention and that our urgent design brief is to design for nine billion people on a thriving planet. This is something that Michael Braungart and I talk about every time we are together, and I find that the enormity of it helps focus me. What a task we have - what innovation, creativity and collaboration it will take. The opportunity embedded in this lesson is amazing: Love all the children of all species for all time, instead of simply thinking that any child born is part of a “population problem.”

gbx2. One of the most important revelations I have had in the last decade was quite recent, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Michael and me to gift our Cradle to Cradle Certification program to a new non-profit institute, what is now the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. We had been searching for a way to share our work for global benefit and the governor's request opened the door to this opportunity. He admired what we had done using design and science. He pointed out that we used no regulations and foundation funding, but simply “plowed our row” as a small consulting business advising small and large manufacturing businesses and achieved astonishing results. We hadn't seen it quite that way, and that was a lesson provided through his lens.

3. When Herman Miller and Steelcase, both competing in the office furniture business, became renewably powered companies while performing on our Cradle to Cradle criteria, another lesson became clear: Businesses can lead the way on climate change with velocity and scale. Governments have been unable to lead. Environmentalists are up against huge vested commercial forces. The only human enterprises large and powerful enough to effect this transformation would be commerce itself, acting in society's best interest based on the simple notion that the first job of business is keep your customers alive and thriving.

4. I think we've learned in the last 10 years that many enterprises we work with have hit the wall and now realize that being less bad is not being more good. Being less bad is a great thing to do and has the right trajectory but it is insufficient to the task of a creating sustaining world. Many of our clients have come to us because of this recognition that simply reducing the things we don't want, like carbon, won't achieve the results we do want, like renewable energy.

5. Speaking of carbon, here's a revelation from Michael Braungart: We don't have an energy problem, we have a material problem. It's carbon in the wrong place. Carbon belongs in the soil; that's nature's design. It does not belong in the atmosphere or the oceans.

6. Renewable energy is dramatically approaching grid parity from a cost perspective in many places. For example, recent maps published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that solar energy, even at the residential level, will be cost effective in most of the U.S. by 2015. Now that the rebate program has been extended to 2016, the cost of equipment and deployments are dropping and new financing models are being developed. This is most promising and absolutely thrilling to me.

7. I have learned about the power of the LED technology. The LED lighting revolution is upon us and promises to be a tremendously potent platform for our product of service concept as technical nutrients. One of the fundamental issues that must be addressed is our rare mineral scarcity, however. As indium and gallium will, at some point, potentially be quite rare. Michael tells me there that some people believe there is probably only enough indium to light two billion people. We need to keep inventing new systems while we assure future cultures that we will be designing systems to recover LED lights for all their materials for future use. In this way, we will be able to imagine safely giving nine billion people access to energy effective light by mid-century.

8. I have been reminded over and over again that we haven't begun to mine the power of conservation. We need to continue to dramatically optimize our use of energy and materials in ways that are delightful and cost effective. I am learning from innovative solutions coming on the market - windows that are thermally as good as walls (Serious Materials: R-10!), LED light fixtures that can run in parking lots off solar energy, control systems that can assure we don't light or heat people who aren't there (I call them ghosts) in buildings. We realize how far we still can go to mine the economic benefit of conservation while producing jobs.

9. In 10 years I've seen tremendous inventiveness and creativity in all sectors - what lessons they have taught us all. We're beginning to deploy in our designs new greenhouses that have 16 times more plant production than open land; air conditioning systems that don't require ducting; plants using photosynthesis as the engine of toxic cleanup for sites; small, silent, and beautiful wind turbines; and technologies that can remove minerals from sewage and cost-effectively turn cities into fertilizer factories.

10. I have discovered, to my delight, that executives are hungry for a clear vision of the future other than the reduce-our-badness vision. They are looking for strategies and methods to inculcate their new positive visions throughout their organizations. We have been developing tools for our clients' master plans, buildings and products as well as for their and organizational structures and processes. These tools are becoming hugely popular with our customers as Cradle to Cradle's positive message spreads and more and more examples of profitable deployments are occurring.

Over the last 10 years it has become profoundly clear to me, through the successes and failures that come with our inventive activity, that it is essential to have clients who are aligned with the deep nature of the undertaking of sustainability. Single-minded or prejudiced actors do not help create the territory and the projects where our sustainable intentions can thrive. We have been blessed with clients who have vision, clarity, alacrity, tenacity and the deep enjoyment inherent of doing great work that is required.

I have been lucky to learn and learn in the last decade. Moving forward, I see the pace of change quickening and Cradle to Cradle ripples widening. What a delightful journey we are on together.   

William McDonough is an internationally renowned designer. McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart co-authored Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. McDonough is founding partner in William McDonough + Partners, an architecture and community design firm and founding principal of MBDC, a firm that assists companies to innovate new products and services. McDonough is a venture partner at VantagePoint Venture Partners, one of the world's leading clean technology investment firms.

Image: William McDonough and Arnold 
Schwarzenegger introduce the Green Products Innovation Institute, recently renamed as the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.