Selling Ecological ‘Revolution’

Selling Ecological ‘Revolution’

After persuading CEO Bill Ford Jr. in 1999 to let him oversee the $2 billion rebuild of Ford Motor Co's River Rouge factory complex, McDonough has been on the road constantly, making motivational speeches to executives, political officials and university students about his grass roofs and sun-drenched factories. By Michael Shellenberger and Erik Curren




Green architect Bill McDonough is on a roll. After persuading CEO Bill Ford Jr. in 1999 to let him oversee the $2 billion rebuild of Ford Motor Co's River Rouge factory complex, McDonough has been on the road constantly, making motivational speeches to executives, political officials and university students about his grass roofs and sun-drenched factories in speeches that compare the toxic off-gassing in new office buildings to the Nazis' gas chambers.

McDonough denounces ill-conceived design and pollution with the passion of David Brower and the confidence of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark -- none of which has been bad for his business. In addition to Ford, McDonough counts as future and past clients Nike, Gap, BASF and high-tech firm Aspect Communications.

None of this has happened by accident. McDonough is an indefatigable marketer. His promotional DVD is narrated by Susan Sarandon and includes executives gushing praise for his work. Ford calls McDonough "one of the most profound environmental thinkers in the world."

McDonough's new book, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" (North Point Press, 2002), was co-written with his business partner Michael Braungart, a German chemist. The book is an entertaining manifesto that summarizes the best of McDonough and Braungart's ideas and projects. Shaped like the "Worst Case Scenario Handbook" and made from recycled plastic instead of wood, "Cradle to Cradle" condemns the threats to our bodies from toxic pollution and describes how to make things -- from shoes to wheelchair covers to buildings -- using processes that mimic the natural world.

Their book has been the occasion for publications from Business Week to The New Yorker to write eerily similar puff pieces about how the 51-year-old "prophet" (in the words of Time and Wired) helps companies protect the environment and turn a profit at the same time.

In the hoopla to describe McDonough's vision of consumer products that can become "mulch for the local garden club," reporters have breezed a contention at the heart of McDonough's analysis: that "regulation is signal of design failure." If corporations were more conscientious about how they make their products, McDonough says, there would be no need for regulation.

It's a vision that endears McDonough to American executives at companies like Ford, IBM and the Gap, which work to undermine the government's oversight of their impact on workers and the environment. In the Spring of 2002, CEO Ford Jr. helped lead a coalition of automakers that defeated a modest attempt to raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards in Congress. Soon Ford may join other automakers in suing the state of California for mandating lower carbon emissions from vehicles.

At a time when environmental NGOs are focused almost entirely on defending the laws like the Endangered Species and Clean Air Acts, pioneering green architect Sym Van Der Ryn said he finds McDonough's message "overly optimistic and uncritical," a politics "perfect for George W. Bush."

So perfect in fact that the Bush Administration's EPA has hired one of McDonough's companies, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, to create a new standard for reusable book packaging. Once the design is ready, the EPA will give it away for free to companies like FedEx and Amazon.com.

The EPA project is just the beginning, according to Joe Rinkevich, McDonough Braungart's vice-president. The EPA's larger vision is for McDonough Braungart to help drive the transition away "from a command-and-control culture to one that encourages positive creative activity."

"Instead of the EPA coming in and saying, you're bad, we need to regulate you," McDonough adds, "what if they came in and said, 'Hey you guys, you might want to try a new design protocol that doesn't require us to regulate you.'"

The personal story of McDonough's business partner and co-author, German chemist Michael Braungart, symbolizes the transition both men hope society will eventually make from repressive regulations to positive incentives.

Braungart is a former Greenpeace chemist and co-founder of the Green Party who started his company after organizing a lock-down at the Ciba-Geigy factory in Basel to protest its chemical spills into the Rhine River. After the action, the pharmaceutical giant's director brought the activists flowers and cake and offered Braungart a consulting contract.

Braungart writes that he had planned to name his new company the Environmental Protection Enforcement Agency but changed the word "Enforcement" to "Encouragement," on the advice of the Ciba-Geigy executive, so that "it would be less hostile and more attractive to potential business clients."

The Profit In Going Green

Ask McDonough about corporate resistance to change and he'll tell you that what's needed is to show companies how they can profit from going green. He tells the story of how he sold Ford Motor Company's board of directors a grass roof for one of its factories. With Ford hemorrhaging money -- the automaker lost $5 billion in 2001 -- McDonough stresses the bottom line.

"In three years you'll spend $48 million to install three chemical treatment plants so you don't violate the Clean Water Act," he says, "and you'll still have your workers standing around praying it doesn't rain.

"Or you can spend $13 million now to put a grass habitat on the roof that absorbs water, protects the roof from degradation, gives you free air conditioning, and holds two inches of still water. Rainwater run-off will filter through a rock storage bed into a giant wetlands filter before it goes back into the Rouge River. No new chemical treatment plants, no workers standing around."

At this point McDonough paused for effect and grinned.

"We'll save you 35 million bucks."

What's been overlooked in the media's rush to declare McDonough a symbol of the end of eco-regulation is the fact that McDonough, green design and clean production are often only financially viable because government regulation makes pollution so much more expensive.

It's a point that's not lost on McDonough. "It's not that we don't like regulation," he says, "it's that we see them all as signals of design failure. It's legitimate for the public to step up and say, 'We have a problem.'"

The only thing McDonough advocates that government do is get out of the subsidy business altogether. "I don't want to stand here and say we need to tax the coal burners," he said, "I want to outcompete them. It's much more powerful. I'd go the other direction I would prefer that we remove subsidies from all the stuff we don't want."

Cutting dirty subsidies is a great idea -- one that's been championed for years by environmental groups. The problem is not only that it went nowhere under the Clinton Administration and Bush's energy plan would do just the opposite; Green groups are just trying to maintain the status quo. As long as business retains its campaign finance lock on Congress, and progressives are forced on the defensive, there's no reason to expect to see the legislation McDonough longs for.

So what should society do when CEOs of whole industries -- the auto industry in particular stands out -- won't act and government won't regulate?

Increasingly, the big environmental groups are waging corporate pressure campaigns aimed at big companies including Ford Motor Company, the current target of the Sierra Club. Aren't these campaigns a form of regulation -- another way for the public to say, "We have a problem"?

Not according to McDonough, who says the Sierra Club campaign against Ford "is a crime. It's not fair to Bill Ford who has expressed the desire to preside over the death of the internal combustion engine. Why would you attack that person? You don't attack somebody when they're down. Clearly he has to make the company viable in order to make the changes he wants to make."

Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope responds, "Bill Ford Jr. said to me, 'You need to be the barbarian at the gate. This company won't change unless you keep the pressure on us.'"

Pope said he offered the help of his 700,000-member organization to win federal tax incentives for Ford Motor Co. to make the transition to better cars.

"Before Bush was elected -- when we still had budget surpluses -- we met with Ford executives and said, 'Look, tell us what you need in the way of tax credits so you can redo your cars and keep jobs in the U.S.,'" Pope explained. "But the people inside the company who see the government and us as the enemy stonewalled it."

As for McDonough's River Rouge project, Sierra Club's director of Global Warming and Energy Dan Becker, who is overseeing the Ford campaign, says, "McDonough is being used. Ford trots him out as a shield for criticism, including for River Rouge, which is the environmental equivalent of an environmentally sound plant producing cigarettes."

Pope adds, "Ford had already decided to rebuild Rouge and replace it with something newer and better when it hired him. Unfortunately, McDonough hasn't gotten Ford to replace the existing physical stock of assembly lines to improve the quality of its cars.

"Design," Pope said, "can't trigger the need for change."

Randy Hayes, whose Rainforest Action Network scored big forest conservation victories through campaigns against targets ranging from Burger King to Home Depot, is even more blunt. "Ask any of these consultants if they would have been hired had there not been campaigns by [Nike critic] Global Exchange, Rainforest Action Network or Greenpeace. They'll tell you it's virtually always because of the campaigns."

Indeed, companies that have made big changes in their industries were the targets of market campaigns: McDonald's on the treatment of animals in factory farms; Nike on factory conditions; Home Depot on its use of old-growth wood; Staples on its use of recycled paper; and Starbucks on labor conditions and fair trade.

"The companies that have moved the furthest the fastest are ones where the cost of business as usual has gone up," said MIT professor Dara O'Rourke, who studies corporate change and regulation. "Nike's work with McDonough is extremely impressive. I asked an executive why Nike's done so much, and he basically said, 'We've been told that the environment can't be another sweatshop issue for Nike. We're going to spend a whole lot of money so we don't get nailed on it.'"

Nike today openly admits that the anti-sweatshop campaign against it succeeded in motivating change within the company.

"I don't think Nike would have made the kind of progress that it has made if we hadn't been attacked," Nike vice-president Maria Eitel told the Australian Financial Review in June 2002. "People will always do the minimum to be successful... There are not a lot of companies making progress on social issues that haven't been forced to."

O'Rourke says that the competition between companies attacked on environmental and social grounds could signal the beginning of a 'race to the top' -- but only if activist NGOs can keep the heat on companies.

The Triple Bottom Line

McDonough says he designed Oberlin College's Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies to behave like a tree. It captures sunlight to generate electricity to heat and cool the building and purify its waste water. Heat-absorbing windows allow in light while regulating temperature.

Bringing light into factory and office buildings is as much a signature McDonough design element as his grass roofs. At the headquarters of Aspect Communications, a San Jose company that provides call center services to other companies, high ceilings, wall-size windows and tree views create a sense of spaciousness, light and quiet. It feels a bit like being outdoors.

The Aspect building was made with non-toxic (or less-toxic) materials that don't off-gas chemicals. And each employee cubicle has a vent that blows fresh outside air through the raised floor.

McDonough is seeking a balance in all his projects between social, environmental and business concerns -- what John Elkington of the social responsibility consulting firm Sustainability calls the "triple bottom line."

For his audiences and clients, McDonough often draws a triangle with one corner each for "Economy," "Ecology" and "Equity." When designing something new, he says, your goal should be to balance all three. Laissez-faire capitalism, deep ecology and socialism all are bad design models because instead of seeking a balance each seeks the subjugation of the other two values.

McDonough and Braungart created nine ecological design principles to guide city officials, designers and planners in new construction for the 2000 World's Fair held in Hannover, Germany. They range from the most famous, "Eliminate the concept of waste," and "Rely on natural energy flows" to the most mystical, "Respect relationships between spirit and matter."

"Eliminating the concept of waste" means, for McDonough and Braungart, using waste from one cycle as food for another. Just as decaying trees in an old-growth forest feed saplings and create habitat for salmon, the death of one product should create life for another. Following Barry Commoner, McDonough and Braungart argue that there should be no more graves for products, only new cradles.

All products, from cars to TVs to shoes have the potential to be leased "products of service" and the permanent responsibility of manufacturers, which will realize cost savings over time through continuously recycling materials.

To achieve this infinite recycling loop, McDonough and Braungart advocate the separation of biological and technical "nutrients" into separate cycles. Whereas biological nutrients should be returned to nature as compost, technical nutrients -- like chemicals and metals -- must remain a human responsibility. So, one of McDonough and Braungart's most ambitious goals is to reduce, worldwide, the total number of technical nutrients in use by industry while multiplying the number of biological nutrients.

Barry Commoner receives no acknowledgement in "Cradle to Cradle," but he put forward a very similar vision in his groundbreaking 1971 book, "The Closing Circle." "Present productive technologies need to be redesigned to conform as closely as possible to ecological requirements." That means "essentially complete containment and reclamation of wastes... essentially complete recycling of all reusable metal, glass and paper products."

For McDonough, "The question isn't growth or no growth, it's what do you want to grow? Sickness or health? Pollution or restoration?" According to McDonough, we can have a society where industrial processes are so clean and humane that regulations are no longer needed.

To get there, McDonough and Braungart believe we must replace the doctrine of eco-efficiency and its call to "reduce, reuse, recycle -- and regulate" with a new approach, "eco-effectiveness." Most so-called recycling is actually "downcycling" -- the transformation of low-quality materials like plastic soda bottles into park benches and fleece jackets. McDonough says, "being less bad is not being good. It's simply being bad -- just less so."

McDonough is not shy about criticizing efficiency advocates. He dismisses the 'hypercar' invention of Amory Lovins -- the esteemed engineer and co-author of "Natural Capitalism" (with Paul Hawken and Hunter Lovins). McDonough says that Lovins' 100-mpg fuel cell "hypercar" is an incomplete transportation solution "going hyper-nowhere" because it won't reduce traffic. "We've evolved a long way since I helped Paul Hawken get into this stuff."

Lovins denies the charge and says. "If you look at chapter two of "Natural Capitalism," it's not called 'Hypercars' but rather 'Hypercars and Neighborhoods.'" Indeed, half of the chapter is about effective community design to reduce the need for cars at all.

"Bill is a gifted designer and charismatic speaker," Lovins adds. "I think his contributions would be greatest if he really understood and correctly reported what the rest of us are saying."

But if Lovins' hypercar sounds unrealistic, McDonough's futuristic plan for a total mobility system sounds even more farfetched. In his description of what he is proposing, McDonough didn't mention mass transit or rail once. The whole system would hinge on self-driven cars guided by GPS technology to create city-wide carpools, staffed by retirees, that will reduce congestion and "build community."

And for all his decrying of design strategies that settle for less, McDonough's own work for Ford has demanded that he too settle for eco-efficiency. While in "Cradle to Cradle" the authors dream of buildings that refuel cars with hydrogen, McDonough told us that fuel cell technology is too far off to be practical for Ford Motor Co.

By failing to give credit where credit is due, whether to authors like Commoner or the activist NGOs and the laws they passed that created a market for his services, McDonough is ignoring the conditions for his success. For an ecological thinker this is tantamount to praising a successful species without mention of its habitat.

All of this is too bad, precisely because "Cradle to Cradle" is one of most compelling and accessible works of the last decade on the threat to human and environmental health from industrial pollution and what can be done about it. It would be a stronger book had it acknowledged the social and political conditions required for the seed of great ideas to bloom.

Chain Reaction

McDonough and Braungart may soon discover whether their ideas can spread to new terrain. They have created a third enterprise, "Green Blue," which Rinkovich says is organized as a nonprofit so that it can receive foundation funding. Their goal is to create new technologies and clean production standards for industrial processes that the organization will give away for free -- like an open source code -- to governments and businesses.

One challenge is whether global corporations will adopt cleaner technologies -- even when they are in their own interest. In the world of industrial ecology it has become a truism that many big companies (and government agencies) are so hampered by internal resistance to change that they never implement fairly simple environmental measures -- such as installing more efficient light bulbs and windows -- even when doing so would save millions of dollars a year in energy costs.

"The obstacles to change are not primarily technological so new products and design tools aren't enough," explained O'Rourke. "There's usually a few people in every big company trying to do something. They are often relegated to the environmental or social or legal division. None of it's been enough to change how the whole firm thinks about this stuff."

David Orr, the Oberlin College professor who hired McDonough to design the school's environmental studies building, agrees. "What's missing in this debate is the whole field of politics."

"McDonough implies that this will happen on its own in the marketplace," says "What then is the role of government? This will have to be a public choice. We'll have to decide to move to a society that uses solar and not fossil fuels. We'll have to decide to protect oceans. These decisions can not and will not be made by the markets alone."

Having sold Ford on a green factory, McDonough Braungart is now helping the automaker design cars that are more fuel efficient, use cleaner materials, and are sold with gas and insurance for 60,000 miles, after which they come back to the company -- not as junkers for "downcycling" but as "food" to build more cars.

Driving both McDonough and the Sierra Club is the expectation that Ford's transition to better cars and cleaner production would raise standards among its global suppliers and set off a chain reaction among related industries. If McDonough succeeds in his effort, the Sierra Club could declare victory and demand equally ambitious achievements from other automakers and other polluting industries.

If government regulation is, as McDonough says, a "signal of design failure," then the unwillingness of automakers to produce cleaner and better cars is a signal of market failure. And as long as companies spoil the environment, regulation through government action and corporate campaigns will remain primary catalysts of the next industrial revolution.

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Michael Shellenberger and Erik Curren are co-founders of Lumina Strategies, a political research and communications firm.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of AlterNet. It first appeared in January 2003.