Greener By Design: Nature's Rights, Nutrients and Quality Design

Greener By Design: Nature's Rights, Nutrients and Quality Design

"Design is the first signal of human intention ... What is our intention as a species and how do we go about thinking about that?" William McDonough asked during his keynote speech at Greener by Design 2009.

That's just one of the big-picture questions companies and designers need to think about and find answers for when they look at their products and what they are doing.

When McDonough -- whose ventures include William McDonough + Partners architecture firm, Cradle-to-Cradle certification and analysis group MBDC, and VantagePoint Venture Partners -- was working with Ford Motor Co. on one of its manufacturing plants, they included a roof with vegetation. During the design process, he said, one focus was the rights of nature.
William McDonough speaks at Greener by Design 2009. © Della Calfee.
"The question is, what do we do about the rights of nature to exist?" he said. "How do we love all of the children of all species for all time?"

Five days after that green roof was laid down, birds started showing up and have now been laying eggs on it.

"Here's a building that makes oxygen, provides habitat, changes color with the season, and so on and so forth," McDonough said.

Thinking about all of the things trees do, he asked, "How many things of human design do you know of that made oxygen lately?"

Looking at the larger picture of the overall impacts of products, chemical use and emissions, McDonough said, "If by design, if our intention is to fill the oceans with plastic, to acidify the oceans to the point that we drop out the bottom of the food chain ... to have endocrine disruptors in our bodies, then we are just doing great."

What is needed, he said, is a new plan, a new way of thinking about products, treating all materials as nutrients and getting rid of the idea of waste.

The Cradle-to-Cradle mindset and certification process he helped develop analyzes products based on 19 criteria covering materials, material reutilization, energy, water and social responsibility. The process takes a deep look at all materials going into products and all impacts from their manufacture and use.

Cradle-to-Cradle certification has now yielded a wide range of products, including chairs that are easy to disassemble and recycle, non-PVC window shades, and infinitely recyclable carpet, one of which is safe enough to eat.

One of the carpet companies MBDC worked with used to ship its carpet trimmings to Spain for disposal because they were declared hazardous waste in Sweden, where the carpet was manufactured. By cleaning up the ingredients going into the carpet, MBDC helped them lose the hazardous waste tag and even found ways to reuse the carpet in other ways, such as compost.

"Greener by design means better quality by design," McDonough said. "The green design approach yields a higher quality product."