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.