HomeResourcesCircular economyDesign guru says it’s not enough to do less harm, products must do more good

Design guru says it’s not enough to do less harm, products must do more good


Bill McDonough

This post is by US journalist Jim Witkin, based on an interview with William McDonough, co-author of a seminal book on the circular economy, Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things. Green Alliance hosted its UK launch in 2009. Here, McDonough talks about his new book. This article was originally posted on Guardian Sustainable Business.

Designer, adviser and author William McDonough wants us to think differently about how we design our products, buildings and urban environments.

McDonough, who often sports a bow tie, has the look of a professor. He speaks softly even as he discusses some very weighty topics. “Design is the first signal of human intention,” he told me in a recent interview, “and if our intention is to destroy the planet, we’re doing a great job.”

Instead, he proposes that the design process should align with our human values, always striving to improve the world for future generations. “Design should be regenerative, and always consider what’s next” for the materials used.

McDonough, and his partner, German chemist Michael Braungart, first articulated these concepts in their 2002 book, Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things. They suggested that all materials used in manufacturing and commercial processes should be viewed as nutrients, either biological or technical.

Using these nutrients, manufacturers could create “completely healthful products that are either returned to the soil or flow back to industry forever”, they wrote. To make their point, the book itself was made from a technical nutrient, a synthetic paper made of non-toxic plastic resins.

Heroes of the planet
The book became an influential work on sustainable development and green design. In 2007, Time magazine hailed McDonough and Braungart as “heroes of the planet”.

Then came the Cradle-to-Cradle certification system, which evaluates a product’s materials (down to the molecular level), energy and water usage, and social factors involved in making and using it. More than 400 products have been certified, from bricks to babies’ nappies to shipping containers used by the US Postal Service. Puma, the sportswear manufacturer, recently released a line of C2C-certified shoes and clothing that are either fully biodegradable or recyclable.

In 2010, they made their certification system and intellectual property publicly available through the non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

More good not less bad
Now, they say, it’s time to take the next step. Their new book, The upcycle: beyond sustainability – designing for abundance, makes the case that the sustainability movement has put too much emphasis on being less bad. Instead, we should be designing for more good, leaving a beneficial footprint rather than just minimising our negative one.

For example, the Dutch carpet maker Desso has made a carpet that is both PVC-free and fully recyclable. But by using special fibres in the carpet, it also cleans the air in homes and offices by capturing airborne particulates.

Buildings can also be designed to give back more to the environment than they take. McDonough’s architectural firm recently designed a 50,000 sq ft building for NASA that purifies all its own water, generates more energy than it uses, and offers a healthy workplace lit by natural daylight and ventilated with fresh airflow.

Do the right thing and being effective
Upcycling is often blocked by some of the widely held maxims of the sustainability movement, such as ‘eco-efficiency’, he suggests. The quest for efficiency, while well-intentioned, is often misplaced, believes McDonough, because it “encourages us to stick with what is poorly designed – just to try to do less of it”.

Instead, we should be shifting our attention to what’s effective. “Peter Drucker pointed out that management is doing things the right way and being efficient, but leadership is doing the right thing and being effective. So we first need to ask ourselves ‘what is the right thing to do according to our values?’ and then decide the best way to do it.” Effectiveness and efficiency combined would allow us to do the right things the right way.

McDonough points to the compact fluorescent light bulb as a product that uses energy more efficiently, but shouldn’t be considered an effective design because it contains toxins like mercury, making it difficult to recycle. As he puts it: “One problem has been solved while another has been created.”

Current attempts at making recyclable products often miss the mark as well, he says. Tech giant Apple, for example, claims that its latest computers and tablets contain highly recyclable materials like aluminium and glass, but because these materials are glued together inside the device, they are practically impossible to disassemble and reuse. (See this earlier post for more on this).

Human values should inform design
Designing products for disassembly is a good start, but making the concept of upcycling widespread will also require rethinking many of our business models. He suggests a shift away from owning products toward leasing them, so you simply pay for the service the product offers. “I don’t need to own all these chemicals, but I need the service they provide when combined into a computer or smartphone or carpet,” he says.

While Cradle to cradle provided the principles of their design philosophy, McDonough sees the new book as an “evocation” and “a call to action”, highlighting design leaders that illustrate the upcycling credo.

Once again using the medium as the message, the new book is made from a biological nutrient. “You could boil it down and feed it to your grandchildren,” he says. (He also suggested that his critics could safely burn the book without releasing toxic emissions.)

McDonough advises aspiring upcyclists that they should be driven by human values, not metrics, and focus on constant improvement. And to the well-worn mantra of reuse, reduce, recycle, he proposes adding redesign, renew, and regenerate.

He acknowledges that the task is not an easy one. “It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to take forever, but that’s the point,” he concludes.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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