“If our intention, as a species, is to destroy the planet, then we’re doing great. If that’s our plan, we’re doing gorgeously on execution,” according to architect and author William McDonough. “But, if it’s not our plan, what’s our plan?”
William McDonough told a Climate One audience in San Francisco on September 7 that his plan, part of what he called a “strategy of hope,” is to “design systems that support the things we want, not perpetuate the things we don’t.” McDonough, with the German chemist Michael Braungart, pioneered the paradigm-shifting Cradle to Cradle (C2C) protocol of product life-cycle analysis. It’s not enough to recycle a product, they maintain, if it has been designed for a single life. Better to re-conceive the very concept of “waste,” to slot potential “waste” products into one of two categories: organic items such as clothes or shoes that degrade and can be designed to go back to nature; and, “technical nutrients” – including toxins – that should be isolated from the biosphere in a closed loop.
McDonough’s C2C analysis can, at times, challenge the prevailing view of sustainability. In his prepared remarks, McDonough cited his firm’s work on a Swiss textile mill. McDonough and team helped eliminate the use of scores of chemicals at the plant, including the potent toxin cadmium. After redesigning the mill’s processes, water discharged to the environment was safe to drink. The prevailing view would recommend cutting water use at the mill and limiting, through regulation, toxic releases to the environment. To McDonough, however, water efficiency might not be the primary goal, and regulation is “actually a signal of design failure.”
“We say use the precautionary principle – why do we have to release cadmium into the environment at all?” he asked. If that Swiss textile mill was instead located in China, he said, and water efficiency measures were implemented without a proscription on toxins, it would result in wastewater with a higher concentration of pollutants. If a building returns drinking water to the environment, water use is not a critical issue.
In May, at a ceremony held at Google headquarters, McDonough and Braungart launched the Green Products Innovation Institute (GPII). McDonough and Braungart established the GPII to enable the C2C protocol to enter the public domain, greatly expanding its reach, and to train assessors to certify consumer products.
Change is coming, McDonough said, not because of governments or international conferences, such as last year’s climate talks in Copenhagen, but by “changing the world one product at a time.” C2C is an effort to catalyze the process. “We’re like the trim tab on a supertanker,” McDonough said. “A supertanker cannot be turned by wheel because the rudder is six stories tall. So they put a little rudder on the big rudder, and then they turn the little rudder. That’s like us. We’re a little business, and we point the direction and say to big business, ‘Go there.’”
-- Justin Gerdes
Climate One, The Commonwealth Club HQ, San Francisco (September 7, 2010)