Bringing Green Design to the Mainstream

Bringing Green Design to the Mainstream

Greener by Design 2009

William McDonough, architect, designer, and author, has long been known for his work in sustainability. His 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, coauthored with Kenneth Michael Braungart, is a manifesto calling for the transformation of industry through green design.

McDonough and Braungart subsequently created a Cradle to Cradle Certification to identify products designed with what they call environmentally intelligent materials and processes.

I caught up with Bill McDonough recently in advance of his keynote presentation at this year's Greener by Design Conference to talk about green product design, Cradle to Cradle thinking, and the role that Wal-Mart may play in leading the charge.

Joel Makower: Bill, one of the things you talked about is the fact that recycling or when we recycle, we're simply recycling a lot of the problems that we've already created -- and yet there's opportunities to take some of the products in the waste stream and turn them into less toxic products. Tell me about that.

William McDonough: Well, if you look at the, you know, use of materials which are questionable like PVC or even PET in our water bottles that contains antimony as a residue from a catalytic reaction, we're realizing these are suboptimal products in a Cradle to Cradle world where we would want everything safe and healthy by design. So, when we look at something like PVC, we say, "Well, why can't we park that somewhere until we figure out what to do with it?" When we look at PET, we wonder why we can't bring it back and actually scrub out the antimony and put it back into the marketplace refreshed and clean, so we're essentially what we call up-cycling it. When we look at recycling, we see that typically things are either down-cycled and they're losing quality in the process of being reused or they're recycled and they come back in the same condition effectively or we can up-cycle things and actually purify them and clean them up on their way back through the cycles, so we're excited about the prospect of up-cycling plastics.

JM: Well, why not just create a whole new plastic all together? Why go through all this?

WM: Well, I think in the long run we're gonna need to take advantage of all the feedstocks that are out there and use them effectively. I mean otherwise we'd find ourselves developing strategies to, say, burn the plastics that exist out there that are suboptimal, but when you go burn antimony-laden PET, what you get is antimony trioxide in the air, which is a known carcinogen, so is burning it gonna be the solution? I don't think so. So, you know, what we really want to do is actually put these things back into useful cycles and so we need transitions to the future. We won't be able to do this overnight.

JM: So, how does that affect the product design process? Because you're talking about in effect designing with variations on existing materials that haven't -- or that are just now being created.

WM: Well, it would mean that as you look at, for example, things in the plastics world, you would say you'd want antimony-free polyester if you're gonna be using polyester and it can be had, so you would specify that. So, the designers can actually specify these materials that we see as being the future materials in their optimized state, and so they can call for that kind of thing, and so at the beginning, we can call for transitional products or we can call for really optimized products as we do our designs.

JM: What drives that inside companies? I mean you've got companies like Steelcase or Shaw that are -- that something internally is driving that, but do you see that designers are starting to look for these solutions or is it still either they're not getting it or that they're not getting the demand from their clients for this new kind of thinking?

WM: I think the design community is looking for lists of materials. They're constantly calling us and asking us, "Can we get lists?" what we call the positive lists, and so we're developing a strategy of how to release the kinds of lists that the designers are gonna need, and we're looking at doing it through a kind of an open access venue, and we're studying all the different ways we can get that done now, but there's a lotta demand from designers for optimized materials so they can be responsible with their work.

JM: So, this is MBDC, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.

WM: Right.

JM: You're starting to create. Does this bring it more open source or what's the strategy here for you?

WM: I think it'll be open access rather than open source. Open source, I think, the way I read it, means people can fiddle with the information and the data, and I think that's fine if you want to make your own lists and things like that, but for our list, I think it'll be more open access where we'll actually release what it is we've catalogued and databased and just make it available publicly, you know, under controls that respect people's right to secret information or proprietary information and things like that.

JM: So there's all these new sort of design or at least materials, protocols and materials categories, I guess, that are coming out and I'm wondering -- where does it all come together? So, for example, there's biomimicry. There's green chemistry. There's Cradle to Cradle. First of all, is there much of an overlap among those? Biomimicry is not a material; it's a discipline.

WM: Right.

JM: Because ultimately if you're a designer you want a whole toolkit to choose from.

WM: Yeah. Well, I think all those tools are sympathetic. I mean, if you look at biomimicry, which is such a, you know, fabulous way to think about approaching problems, it gives you an inspiration and it gives you touch points and reference points and sort of miracles that you can connect to, the miracles of the world around us. But, you know, you could be designing a product that is unsafe that looks like something that nature might have done in terms of its physical characteristics, in terms of its attributes in the world. It's something that would walk on ceilings but drops bombs, you know. I mean, so a tool only has a value based on the intention and the purpose to which it's put, so when we look at biomimicry, for example, I mean it should be celebrated for all the joyful aspects of its characterization of the world as an inspiration, so that fits really beautifully.

When we look at other systems, green chemistry works perfectly with Cradle to Cradle because Cradle to Cradle incorporates green chemistry. Cradle to Cradle also incorporates this idea of biological and technical nutrition as two distinctions for product development. It includes renewable energy or includes clean water, and it includes social fairness, which, you know, it may not be inherent in green chemistry, per se. So, I think they're all sympathetic with each other and they all fit together as a kit, so, you know, we encourage people to think in biomimicry terms. We encourage them to think in green chemistry terms and we encourage them to think in Cradle to Cradle terms simultaneously.

JM: So, I'm thinking in terms of being a designer and I'm trying to understand sort of what the palette -- what the toolkit is out there and -- you know, and I've heard about Cradle to Cradle. I've heard about biomimicry. I've heard about green chemistry. And I've heard maybe even some other things that I don't -- clean technology or vague terms that I don't really know what they mean. How do you sort of get to the point as a product designer that you're sort of understanding what's possible and is that even right question? Or is it maybe -- even from a toolkit perspective, maybe do you start this with sort of the intention, as you called it?

WM: You know, I see design as a signal of human intention, so the question is what do we intend to the species at this point in our history, and so the question we're asking when we start the design of a product is, "How do we love all the children of all species for all time?" So, that's a question. In a sense, that's a big biomimicry question, too, so the next question we ask is, "What is our goal?" And our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, soil, water, and power, economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed -- period.

And so when we start a design project, we ask that first question about how do we love all the children and then we put our goal forward and then we ask the team to constantly use these as reference points while they do the work that's involved in the design. And so when we find something that's unsafe, we want to remove it and substitute something that we find that's safe. If we find something that's renewably powered, we'll celebrate that, and if we can make sure the water and the process is gonna be clean coming out of the system, you know, that's better than sort of accepting the idea that it wouldn't be optimized, things like that.

JM: So, I'm starting with the intention and my intention is not that different from yours, but I don't have the years of expertise and knowledge and access to the tools. So, I'm trying to figure out how do I -- what's out there. We've named some of them here, but where do I find all of that that -- or how do I learn as a designer what the toolkit's like that will help me translate that intention into this product that my client, internal or external client, is asking me to do? Is that an appropriate question? Is it –?

WM: It's an appropriate -- of course, it is. It's not easy. They're -- I think more and more tools are coming together. I would guess within the next two or three years we'll see a whole community of designers coming together to share their information, and when you look at some of the more sort of broadly scaled initiatives like the Wal Mart initiative, for example –

JM: The scorecarding initiative?

WM: The scorecarding and then an indexing process that they're undertaking. You know, that'll be informed by a lot of people and they're going to, from my understanding, make it available, you know, quite transparently 'cause that makes sense. It would have to be, you know, operated by people that have credibility and it'll have to be transparent for all to see, and I think as those kinds of index -- indices and other lists of materials come out, people will have more and more access to tools.

JM: Rand Waddoups from Wal-Mart will be speaking at Greener by Design, what we expect will be right after the release of the scorecard and the index. How much do you think that has the potential to change things? I mean, for example, will Wal-Mart potentially be creating the default standard for what a product needs to be?

WM: In a certain context, I think they will be. I mean, just given their scale and the power of the marketplace, I think they will have a de facto standard there. I think it'll have to be broadly enough based to have credibility beyond just Wal-Mart, but the fact that they're taking the initiative is tremendous and the fact that they're seeking input from so many sources is tremendous, so I think it will become a de facto standard.

JM: Does that make you hopeful?

WM: It makes me hopeful given the level of the dialogue that they've engaged in this area. I'm very impressed by their willingness to engage in the serious questions. I've had the opportunity to speak with them and was really -- see what they're doing as quite critical and quite important.

JM: So, I guess to wrap up here, does that signal that there is probably gonna be some changes in how we think about product design, manufacturer, consumer use? Is this going to be a transformative moment perhaps in product design?

WM: I think so because what's happening is that people are thinking and they're thinking about these issues and they're thinking deeply and they're thinking seriously and they're thinking broadly, and so we have a real rich population of concern around these issues now from the design perspective, and so I think that an unthinking product is going to become something that will be looked at as a missed opportunity for some real good work, and I think that the more the information is made available and the more people have access to it, the less excuses they'll have to say that they didn't want to think about that or weren't able to, so I think it'll raise the bar for everyone.

JM: Great. Thanks so much, Bill.

WM: You're welcome.