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Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

Cradle-to-Cradle Design, Education, and a Future of Abundance

In this Wrigley Lecture, architect William McDonough will discuss his co-authored book, Cradle to Cradle, which offers practical steps for innovating within today's economic environment. Part social history, part green-business primer, part design manual, he argues that an industrial system that “takes, makes, and wastes” can become a creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social, and economic value.

Related Events: Cradle to Cradle Design, Education, and a Future of Abundance


William McDonough: Hi, everybody. I apologize for my voice. I choked on something last night and I coughed all night. I’m fine though. It’ll be a little scratchy.

It’s a real privilege to be here. I think ASU is the spearhead of sustainability in higher education. Congratulations to President Crow and everyone here.

I wanna talk a little bit about education but I wanna talk about what we educate about. I wanna probably be a little bit pokey because you’ll see; I don’t think we’re doing anything really, if we just be less bad. I think we’re just being bad but less so.

It’s amazing to me that in places that honor the concept of science, the people think that less and bad are numbers and you take two negatives and you get a positive. Less is a relationship; bad is a human value. Being less bad is not being good. It’s being bad, just less.

I’d like to talk about what it means to be good. I’ve had the privilege of being the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and as such, in 1994, I was able to live on the Lawn at Mr. Jefferson’s university, the first public institution of higher education in this country.

As an architect, I can just tell you that it was a very moving place to be because this is the Rotunda, the head of the Lawn, and we’re looking here at the platonic perfection of a sphere and a cube. This is the academy. This is Plato. This is truth. This is beauty.

As we look inside, we see, not only in this beautiful orb in this cube, look at the rows on the first two floors. They are ovaries. This is the source. As we look down the Lawn, itself, we see the Pavilions, ten of them. These are the Lyceum. This is Aristotle. This is science, mathematics. This is form. This is beauty. This is the source.

We start to realize that we can actually physically manifest our understanding of the world by the way we design. Mr. Jefferson was a designer, if nothing else, because if you live in a house designed by him, which I had the privilege of doing, you realize, not only is he your designer here, but you can go look at his tombstone nearby, his last design. You’ll notice that on it he only recorded the things he designed.

It says, “Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, author the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom which became the Bill of Rights and father of the University of Virginia.” That’s it. Anything missing?

Can you imagine being President of the United States twice and it’s not important enough to even put on your tombstone?

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: See what we notice, he’s recording his legacies, not his activities. He doesn’t have a list of his jobs. He just shows us his designs. The things that he left behind for us to enjoy and remember this, we, the people in this room, are Thomas Jefferson’s seventh generation.

What does it mean to design that way? When I moved to UVA, I lived on this Aristotelian colonnade and I built bookcases to match Mr. Jefferson’s from Monticello and I filled them with Mr. Jefferson’s writings and I said, “Well, I’m the dean here for five years, I will read all of this.”

He left behind almost 30,000 letters. Imagine. I asked the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation if they could let me know when Mr. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and I wanted to read everything else he did at the same time.

What else was he doing? Guess what, thirty-three years old he wrote it in 16 days. Can you imagine? In the meantime, inventing the moldboard plow, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

This is his Academical Village. Cardinals with food and delight. The Rotunda; the Library; the Pavilions, the professors lived upstairs, the classrooms were downstairs. The students lived in between. You can get around in the winter without shoveling snow. It was too noisy. You can get around in the rain without getting wet. The Academical Village.

These were the original disciplines at University of Virginia. Moral philosophy, natural philosophy. These are where we would find physics, chemistry, law, medicine.

When we put these professors in the ten pavilions and the state argued, the legislature, about giving them funding and they said, “How could you pick these ten professors? All they do is argue with each other.” His answer was, “Of course, they argue with each other. That’s why I picked them.” Education requires the fierce clash of ideas.

If we look at his other work and his thinking about the history of rights, he read Anglo Saxon and Greek. If we look at the history of rights as Roderick Nash from the University of California Santa Barbara’s pointed out in his book, The Rights of Nature, “Here is Mr. Jefferson studying 1215 the Magna Carta.”

The Magna Carta is the rights of noble males. His Declaration of Independence, the rights of white, landowning, Protestant males. Only six percent of the population.

Then we start to see things happening. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Suffrage, 1920, welcome aboard, ladies, took a while. Then we see the Civil Rights Acts of the ’70’s. Native Americans, 1924 and then 1973, the first time something other than a human, is given the right to even exist with the Endangered Species Act under President Nixon.

Now isn’t it interesting that over time, we move from white noble males to other species. Where is this going?

During the Earth Summit, I had the privilege of representing the architecture community, both the AIA and the International Union of Architects at the Earth Summit, 1992. I delivered the Hannover Principles that I had written as a gift from the German government to the Earth Summit.

During all this, I heard an amazing story from my friend, Tom Lovejoy, who was advising George Bush, the first, and he was trying to get them to understand why it would be good to sign the Biodiversity Convention, which was a real issue.

President Bush asked Doctor Lovejoy to explain it to John Sununu, an engineer from New Hampshire, a famously conservative gentleman, who was his Chief of Staff. Doctor Lovejoy brought in our preeminent biodiversity wizard, E. O. Wilson from Harvard.

Professor Wilson tried to explain to President Bush’s Chief of Staff why the Biodiversity Convention was so important. Near the end, John Sununu said to E. O. Wilson, “I see. You’re calling for an endangered species act for the entire planet and the devil’s in the details. Forget it,” at which point, Professor Wilson stood up and said, “No, sir, God is in the details” and left.

Jefferson wrote a letter to Madison when they were designing the federal government. He decided a federal bond should be one generation. To him, it was 19 years but, as we know, it turned out to be 30 but he thought it should be one generation.

This was his logic. He said, “The earth belongs to the living. No man may by natural right oblige the lands he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime because if he could, the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living.” The earth would belong to the dead.

At that time, I decided I would have one simple design question that I would bring to all my work and that question is how do we love all the children of all species for all time?

What if that is the first question we ask? It’s not just our children. It’s all the children. What would happen to design if we asked that question? What would it mean for us to find ourselves here, as we now call it the Anthropocene era? The era where humans have become the dominant species. The era where we can change climate. Ninety-nine percent of the large mammals on the planet are under direct human management.

Think about it. The Anthropocene. What does it do to our heads if we think about that? Design becomes very important because design is the first signal of human intention. When you get up in the morning and you have intentions, you are a designer.

What are our intentions as a species? If we intend to destroy the planet, pollute the water we’re doing great, if that’s the plan. If you say, “Well, I didn’t really wanna cause global warming all the way over here.”

Okay, but that’s what’s happening. It’s become our de facto plan. It’s the thing that’s happening because we don’t appear to have another plan. Who’s got the plan?

We also decided we will design for 10 billion people. That’s our assignment and we can’t just stand here and say, “Oh, woe is us. We have to reduce the population.” Like you might’ve heard from some famous recent politicians that are talking about climate change, et cetera.

If we don’t love every child that’s born, if we look at a kid in India and go, “Population problem,” human rights cease to exist. Just like that. We have to love every child that’s born and celebrate their creative opportunity in a world of abundance, not a world of limits.

Limits to Growth, 1972, highly problematic because it looked at a lot of materials and systems and said, “Oh, when they end up with the end of their useful life, you now, well, they’re fully depreciated.” They like disappear off the ledger? Where did it go? Oh, it went away. Where is away?

Once we saw the planet from outer space, 1968 away went away. Where’s away? Let’s honor every one of these children and celebrate abundance for them. We have an abundance of renewable energy. We could become, once again, native to place. These are our stories.

Gregory Bateson wrote this book called Mind and Nature in the early ’70’s. An anthropologist, husband of Margaret Meade, and in it, he coins the term cybernetics. This is when they were punching cards and were still basic, you know, computer language, right.

In the book, he’s telling his daughter a story about the future and he’s talking to a computer of the future and he says, “Tell me, computer, when do you think computers will begin to think like humans?” Then there’s a long pause and the computer says, “Hmm that reminds me of a story.”

What are stories? What does it mean to be native to place? I think all sustainability is local. I think our planet is our local place, as well as the smaller fractals that we inhabit but let’s remember our planet is our home and we’re not leaving. We’re not going away.

What would that mean? Well, that means it’s time to be more good not just less bad. It’s different. We don’t walk through the forest going, “Ah, over-population of trees.”

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: It appears that ants have about four times the body mass of humans but we don’t have an over-population of ants. They all inhabit various sectors of their ecosystems; do their work. We don’t have any ants that don’t have jobs.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: What do they do and they’re constantly cycling everything. It’s time for us to re-think. Re-think and it’s not just reduce, reuse, recycle. That’s not enough. We have to recognize that we have become, as a species, strategically tragic.

How many people you know of are in business and somebody said you’re strategically tragic. I think it’s time for a strategy of change, don’t you? Well, what is the change? What are the game rules of this? Is it, “Oh, we’ll just be less bad and our goal is zero?”

Are you kidding? You have that posted all over this campus. I’m sorry. Your goal is zero. What are you trying to tell the children? It would be better if you weren’t here? Is that what you’re saying? We’re out for zero. What is that through carbon? Wait a minute you are carbon. You wanna be zero carbon? You’d better shot yourself, dry up and blow away because you’re carbon.

We don’t have an energy problem. We have material problem. We have carbon and material in the wrong place, the atmosphere, that’s the problem. We have plenty of energy that’s also part of the problem see. If we have a material displaced so if all we’re gonna say is we wanna be less—I don’t think the kids are gonna get up and go, “Hurrah.” They’re gonna say, “It’d be better if you weren’t here.”

What kind of message is that? If commerce is the engine of change, that’s why I work in commerce so much. Then what would the design and intention of legacy of modern commerce be? Imagine you were intentionally perpetuating a system of commerce which puts billions of pounds of hazardous material in soil, air, and water every year or maybe you’d feel better if it was hundreds of millions.

Have we received any information about this? Any signals that these things are problematic? How about Love Canal? How about Bhopal? How about Basel and the pollution of the Rhine? How about the earthquake in Turkey? How about Fukushima? These are signals of design failure of tremendous proportion.

What are we doing ignoring billions of clean kilowatt-hours and BTU’s that come from the sky every day for free? Remember, we have a thermonuclear reactor at a very safe distance, 93 million miles. It’s eight minutes and it’s wireless.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: I love nuclear power. I think we should spend trillions of dollars capturing nuclear power immediately and I’m so glad we got a reactor already. Isn’t it great? Let’s go get it.

This is one of our houses in Make It Right. We couldn’t get contractors that would affordably give us solar collectors for our affordable housing so we started a solar company called Make It Right Solar. Hired the local people said, “Here’s a screwdriver. This is not rocket science, you know. Here’s an electrical connector.” People now have $25.00 electric bills instead of $250.00 and we’re the largest solar installer in New Orleans.

What if we see human population as a problem rather than an opportunity to serve? Why is the world so negative? These children are not a problem; they’re reaching out for love. Let’s love them.

Half of my design time, I get to design for the wealthiest people in the world. Imagine. I have clients like Google and I get to do all kinds of fun stuff but I spend half my time designing for people with nothing. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a balance. You wouldn’t believe what we come up with. It’s fantastic.

What if we ignored our material prosperity by cradle to grave? What is this whole life cycle thing anyway? This is not alive. It’s a projection. Northern Europeans—’cause you peel a banana in Sweden, that peel will be there for years, fair enough, so you gotta bury it. Okay. You don’t have to bury it in Rome or the jungle.

What if things were in cycles, use periods? What would it mean? What if we could measure our progress, not just by how bad we can be with undefying goals of zero? See, you’re not telling us what you are. You’re telling us what you’re not because you’ve gotta reduce.

We believe in reusing and recycling but most things today are not recycled. They’re down-cycled, a term we coined in our book. Things are losing their quality. Clear polymers become park benches on their way to landfills.

Efficiency is insufficient. All we wanna do with efficiency—this is the project that I was given by Bill Ford in public. Redo this. He didn’t even tell me he was gonna do it. When I asked him later, “Why did you do it in public without telling me?”

He said, “If I had asked for permission, I never would’ve gotten it. You’ve never designed an auto plant before. So, let’s go for your shareholder value or we’re both toast.”

What are we gonna do just reduce our footprint? I hate it when people run around going, “We have to reduce our ecological footprints.” Yeah, okay, fine, tiptoe.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Wait a minute, I wanna stomp around and leave mine in wetlands ’cause you could pour a little less asphalt but as far as I’m concerned, it’s still two words, assigning blame.

Typical reporting today, social responsibility reporting, there are all these charts that look like this. I’m a design guy. I also do business. The only people I know that like charts that go down to the right are the people handling expense reports.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Businesses are meant to be producing revenue. Hello. This is silly. You’re gonna tell us you’re gonna reduce your carbon by some point. Yeah. Good. Tell us what you’re gonna do. Just tell what you’re not and your goal is zero. You’re trying to tell us it’d be better if you didn’t exist. I don’t understand that. Imagine this.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: What kind of a communication is this? You’re telling us what you’re not; does that help me when I’m shopping? Even more amazing, we would say, “Oh, it’s, ah, whatever.” Free of, you know, some toxin. Just tells us it’s free of that, it doesn’t say, what it is. How about this one?

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Plutonium free [inaudible 00:23:16] It doesn’t cost you anything but nobody said, “Well, wait a minute; this is chromium-based ink or chlorine-based color. It’s totally undefined. We’re just telling people what we’re not. Well, what are we? ”

Peter Drucker, the management consultant wizard said, “Efficiency is a job for managers. It’s doing something the right way.” Efficiency, you see, doesn’t have a value. It’s a tool. It’s not a good or a bad. What if you’re a super-efficient terrorist? Is efficiency a good? Not if you’re a terrorist. Okay.

Efficiency is just a tool and a tool’s value is established by the purpose to which humans put it. A hammer doesn’t know if it’s good or bad. If I hit you with it, it’s a weapon. If I build your house, it’s a tool.

Drucker said, “The executive job is to be effective and do the right thing. The manager’s job is to do it the right way.”

That’s why I’m poking at you. What’s the right thing to do? All you’re telling me is what you’re not trying to be. What are you trying to be? See, it’s different. It’s fun. It’s fun and it gives the kids hope that the adults don’t need more supervision, right?

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: What is your goal to reduce, reduce, avoid? Guilt management? No, here’s our goal. A delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, soil, water, and power. Economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly joined period. Any part of this you don’t like? Let’s start designing into it. Watch what happens.

1108, Saint Hildegarde von Bingen, look at this poem. It’s my favorite poem.

“Glance at the sun
See the moon and the stars
Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings

I’m not a scientist. I work with a lot of scientists. I was born in Tokyo, Japan. When I was five years old, my parents took me to see Hiroshima. I had a lot of curiosity about that. I was pretty scared about it. I always wanted to know, “Gee, Einstein’s the smartest guy in the world couldn’t even remember his own phone number. What was that?”

Remember what he said? He said, “Why should I remember something I could look up?” I never understood that until now. But why was he afraid?

Well, when I got to Dartmouth, I was an art student but I decided to take nuclear physics ’cause I was curious. I went to my professor and I said, “I wanna know why Einstein was afraid and I wanna know how Hiroshima disappeared.”

On the political front of why we would do this to somebody else, I’ll take that over in the gummy department, fair enough.

“I wanna know how that happened. Physically, what happened? What flash, bang?”

He said, “Well, you need to learn the special theory of relativity.”

I said, “Okay, you’re my teacher, teach me.”

He handed me this big book said, “Here it is. Read this.”

I went back to my room, I went, “I can’t do this. No way.”

Onionskin paper, endless. I left it open on equals m c squared and I lit a fire. At Dartmouth, we had fireplaces in New Hampshire. Trees or weeds in those days.

I’m sitting looking at the fire and I’m going, “I can’t do this formula, so I’m in crisis and I’ll never be able to do this.”

Then I’m looking at the fire and I’m going, “There’s entropy. Everything’s going to chaos and burning.” It’s the 1970’s, before the anti-Christ. It’s going to chaos and not to re-aggregate and we have this special—you know we have this thing Lawthur McNamics 00:27:53 going and we have all kinds of stuff going here.

I thought, well, you’re not from Asia. What’s the opposite of that? What’s going on there? Chaos. We need order. What is order? It’s not exergy. It’s really, what is negative entropy in a sense? I don’t know a lot about these things at all but I just thought about it and I went, “Well, it must be the log itself.”

Then it occurred to me, “Oh, I see.” A disaggregated form of energy coming from the entropy 93 million miles away. It’s reaching the earth’s surface and it’s being aggregated by dispersed receivers, millions of trees. It’s collecting the minerals in the water and it’s putting in the log. Beautiful.

I thought to myself, “If I’m ever an architect, I wanna design buildings like trees.” Now just remember, in 1970, we did not have wheels on our luggage. We are not that smart.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: It took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: I thought, “Well, what if I could design a building like a tree? What would the design assignment be? Oh, it would be let’s design a building, not that’s it some LEED rated 20 percent less bad building.”

You know with recycle polyvinylchloride and carpets getting points for recycled content of toxic material with endocrine disrupters for our young women so they have problems with children and mother’s milk. Mother’s milk is now contaminated with hundreds of chemicals. It would be illegal to sell it on a store shelf. What are we doing?

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could design a building that made oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars in food, changes colors to seasons, microclimates, and self-replicates.”

That’s the design assignment of a tree and we have wheels on our luggage. See. This is interesting.

If this exists, it’s not science. I’m not a scientist but it’s occurred to me as a designer that E is physics. This is from here. It’s a part of physics and then M, oh, my goodness is chemistry, and this is mass here. If we take all the chromium from South Africa, which we always did even during apartheid, and we put little holes in the ground of our products and are not peanut butter jars and so on. Then future generations will go, “What were you thinking? You’ve toxified us and we’ve lost the usefulness of this material. What are you doing?”

Okay, so there’s the M. What’s missing from this? It’s biology. Life itself. The earth belongs to the living. See Einstein didn’t deal with biology and then you look at the formula. How many of you have done the formula? Anybody? Oh, my goodness, we’re in college. You wanna see what happens when a designer takes this up. It’s real simple. Dumb as dirt to me. I could be completely wrong. I don’t know but it looks like math. Its got an equation.

How do you do an equation? Well, look for the number. There’s the number. Now for my little brain, 186,000 miles per second, that’s a really big number. Right? Let’s just call it approaching infinity. My [fading voice 00:31:39] Now let’s cut and square it. Oh, my goodness. Even bigger. More than I can imagine, which means that if M is in anyway a positive number, as in one atom, then E is a flash and a city disappears. That’s why Einstein was afraid. That is the atomic bomb.

That’s a tool. Its value is assigned to it by the purpose to which it’s put but this is a very big problem. To have designs that produce waste that take thousands of years to deal with and are very expensive.

Also, I’ve looked at Crick and Watson ’cause they said what about the life? What about biology? 1953, DNA, in 1962, Crick gave a speech at the University of Washington called Of Molecules and Men. In it, he said, “What does it mean to be a living thing?”

He called it the nature of vitalism. What does it mean to be alive? His conclusion was in order to be a living thing you had to have growth. You had to have free energy from outside the system ’cause a business can’t grow without income and typically, that’s solar energy for life. Good. The third thing, you have to have an open metabolism of chemicals operating for the benefit of the organisms and their reproduction. Open metabolism of chemicals operating for the benefit of the organisms and their reproduction.

What are we making folks? Toxic things? Oops. We have to revalue and re-measure. It’s famous now that engineers are said to know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Architects know less and less about more and more until we know nothing about everything. Society and contractors, especially, know nothing about anything, thanks to their contact, architects and engineers.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: What we really need to realize is that when we start designing, we don’t start with numbers. You can’t innovate with benchmarking. I work with Google; they didn’t benchmark the Encyclopedia of Britannica.

See if you start with metrics, like reduce numbers, you can get tactics like change a light bulb. You can get strategies like change all your light bulbs and you can get to goals. Oh, 20 percent reduction by 22 million but you don’t get the values from there. You’re still in measurements.

What we do is we start with values. How do I love all the children, all species for all time? What are my principles? They gotta have principles. Then we set our goals, then we develop our strategies, our tactics. What do we do right now? Then we measure and watch what happens.

Instead of just saying, “I’ll be efficient.” You start by signaling our intention for what it would mean for us to be 100 percent good. Then, of course, we do efficiency because it’ll help reduce the demand side but it’s insufficient see. If you say I’m gonna reduce my coal and nuclear to the minimum, you’re still coal and nuclear, so if that’s your intention, you’re still there.

If you have another intention, right. What is it? Then we do effectiveness and this is where the creative work happens see. We start to think otherwise and we start to move it out so the efficiency helps us a great deal, we’re just hard to man. Without innovation and principled work, we don’t have leadership. We just have people following.

What we do is we created this chart that we use with our clients. We just simply do the obvious thing. We put the things we don’t want underneath—zero. We say, “Fine we don’t want toxic materials.” Again, got it. We don’t want toxins. We do want healthy, safe materials and metabolisms. Oh, got it.

Let’s go from here to here and how do we do it. Oh, we reduce our badness see. Now it’s a trajectory. It’s a good trajectory. It’s a good thing, dude. It’s not sufficient, still in the red zone. What does this look like? See now we’re onto something. We can tell the kids, that’s where we’re going, up there. Not zero. This stuff we want to go to zero sure but we gotta tell you what that is otherwise you’re left guessing.

This is design. It’s your intentionality rendered visible. That’s what Cradle to Cradle is. It’s a positive strategy. It has five major dimensions. Materials are in biological or technical metabolisms. This is the main gift, I think, is that what Crick and Watson were describing, and later Crick with his nature of vitalism is this metabolism. That’s the thing to which he’s referring.

What Michael Browner and I have pointed out is that there’s another one that’s 5,000 years old, when we started banging metal. It’s this stuff. We should see all that as services. The TV’s are services. The carpet’s a service. You want acoustics. You want appearance. You wanna clean up a little—well, maybe not in this case. You want cleanability. You want whatever and what we don’t want is hazardous toxin material. PVC with off-gassing, vallates and plasticizers with 16 known carcinogens in the face fiber, called an eco-carpet, please.

These are materials that can be continuously reused by humans. Lead is—poor little lead. How many of you think lead is a bad thing? All right. Is lead bad? Well, the Europeans think so ’cause they banned lead in computers, in solder, but they didn’t say what to use. They just said no lead. Well, poor little lead.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: They ended up using bismuth and tin and kilo copper, amalgam. This stuff gets brittle, starts fires. The oil industry said, “No way. Brittle stuff starts fires. We’re not going up there with that.”

They got exempted and then when it turned out, bismuth is mined with lead ten to one. Now in order to get the bismuth, there’s ten times the lead mining. Now lead is so cheap. The oil companies are in for wisdom have decided to re-lead the gas line in Africa. Now the kids in Europe wouldn’t be exposed to lead in the computers, they were never supposed to anyway, but now the kids in China and Africa get brain death.

Unattended consequence because nobody said let’s be positive re-defined. The thing is, see, if lead is in a technical nutrient cycle, it stays within the computers. You see with your take back programs and so on. Lead is not a toxin; it’s a technical nutrient. It’s fantastic solder. If you release it in the biosphere, brain death for your children. Not a good idea.

See, so we need to have defined systems. These things belong in sequestered systems. These go back to the biosphere. My first product that we designed was a fabric in Switzerland in 1993. The fabric is so clean you can eat it. It’s been selected by the Airbus Company. It’s the fabric of choice for Airbus, which is great news for everybody ’cause if you find yourself at 40,000 feet with an extreme fiber deficiency, you can safely eat your chair.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: The important thing is we went and looked at the chemicals. There were 3,000 chemicals being used in textiles, 3,000 and in its company 250 undefined. We went in and we inspected all the chemicals and we came up with 38 that were so clean that the water coming out of the textile mill, we knew every color, every finish, everything we wanted. The water was coming out so clean it was as clean as Swiss drinking water.

When your factory’s full of dark, heavy vats full of hot liquid, imagine when the water comes out, it’s clean as Swiss drinking water. Welcome to design. This is design. Factories’ water purification systems. Nice. Right?

The textile used to have its trimmings. Before we arrived, had been declared hazardous waste by the Swiss government. You couldn’t bury or burn it in Switzerland. They had to ship it to Spain.

Is there something we don’t understand about the equal sign? Here’s your fabric and there’s your trimming and there’s this hazardous waste and there’s an equal sign. The cheapest thing to do is just don’t trim it. Just send it to your customers.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: We’re insane. I mean it’s insane. We decided what if the trimmings were mulch for the local garden clubs, started pushing up strawberries, et cetera. Any way, the fabric was a huge success. Twenty percent cheaper to make.

In Vancouver, the maintenance guy at the sewage plant was watching his pipes fill up with crystals and have to replace ’em all the time ’cause they kept shrinking. He put in a vortex see if it would keep it in suspension and what happened? Up came this struvite. It’s phosphate slow release fertilizer. You can sell it at a 12 percent profit. What if our sewage treatment plant would’ve—what a name. That’s a liability isn’t it? Doesn’t that cost the city money? Doesn’t that eutropy the bays and rivers and with point source pollution? Aren’t the farms causing non-point source pollution every time it rains with the phosphates?

By the way, phosphate from Florida is the largest single spread of low-level radioactivity in the world. We’re running out of phosphate and the Chinese have captured the phosphate market. Most of it’s in China and Morocco.

We all need four grams of phosphate a day. What if our sewage treatment plans became nutrient managing systems? What if they made 12 percent money on the phosphate, 12 percent money on the nitrogen, 12 percent money on the compostables that go into gasification systems? They become assets instead of liabilities. What is our design paradigm anyway?

We eliminate the concept of waste. We’re not saying minimize waste or zero waste because if I said, “Pink elephant, don’t think of a pink elephant.” What happens?

If I say, “Waste.” You think of waste. We don’t say the word waste. Everything nutrient in metabolism. Carpet for Shaw Industries, Berkshire Hathaway we design what it looks like, too, but this is the carpet Cradle to Cradle survey. It’s carpet made with caprolactam. It’s a Nylon 6, infinitely reusable and the basis of thermoplastic polyolefin using new metabolism chemistries. Infinitely reusable.

It’s not PVC being recycled. This is designed to be recycled forever. You send it out to your customer and it’s on their floor. Those are your raw materials for the future. You get to warehouse your materials on your customers’ floors. Isn’t that great? You have the relationship with the customer, that’s the valuable thing and the molecules are perfectly designed to come back to you. Nice. Okay, these are new business models.

We do Steelcase, Hayworth, Herman Miller. All these chairs are Cradle to Cradle chairs. We’re not saying that chair’s gonna go to Mexico City and 15 years from now you’re gonna do a take back program. That’s ridiculous. That chair’s not gonna go back to Grand Rapids, right, but aluminum polycarbonate, polyethylene, steel, rubber. They’re all marked. These chairs are all designed to come apart in five minutes or less with tools you’d find in the kitchen drawer. They can go back to the international material pools of raw materials for reuse, you see. It’s beautiful. We have these materials for our constant use as a species. We can celebrate the making of things. See, right now, so we’ve gotta reduce our consumption, like you can consume a TV, come on. You consume a TV, 4,360 chemicals. You don’t consume TV’s. It’s silly. These are products that service and we wanna infinitely reuse the materials, of course, how obvious is this.

When we were handed the River Rouge $2 billion, 20-year project, that’s what we started with. The joke in Dearborn clearly is that this is a color photograph.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: This was Henry Ford’s centerpiece the first Industrial Revolution but Churchill called the arsenal democracy. Instead of just saying, “Let’s shrink its footprint.” We said, “What if we could think about design differently? What if we made the world’s largest green roof? What if we purified water with plants instead of three chemical treatment plants and four miles of pipes? What if we gave Michigan State research money to study how we can remediate these soils and institute with plants?”

It’s fantastic. The bulrush loves cabnia. Why can’t we do this? Our goal was really simple. It wasn’t parts per billion anything. It was we’ll be done when Bill Ford sends his children to play here. That’s when we’re done. Like that.

This picture is the roof. That’s a roof. It’s only an inch and a half thick, seven pounds per square foot. We’re cheap. We’re light. We found it in Germany. It took some work ’cause when I first got to Ford, they put a paint engineer in charge of me. He came to the meeting late, you know, south of dog stuff and he goes, “I’m not here to talk to no eco-architect or ego-architect about no eco-architecture and here at Ford, we talk over skylights. Now what’s this about a green roof?”

For us, it was like, yes. This Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You need people like that. By the time we got done, he’s now in the sustainability business. It’s pretty exciting.

We went to Germany and we found a roof that was used by Stasi. It has camouflage. It was really cheap in East Germany during the Cold War to hide the airplanes. It only weighed seven pounds a square foot. We brought it over—brought the Germans over. Yeah, see those, those are killdeer eggs. They landed and they were nesting within five days.

When I had to present this to the Ford’s board for approval, they gave me a minute and a half. As they walked in, Bill Ford said, “Bill I bet they didn’t give you much time. Take twice as long as they gave.”

I said, “It’s okay, I got a minute and a half. That’s all I need.”

This board of very important fiduciary groups, as you can imagine, in the car business. I said, “I have a minute and a half so I’m gonna take the first 30 seconds to tell you the building’s for the birds.”

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: This is true. They’re all going like, as we like to say, “Hound dogs reading an algebra book.” You know like, “Huh?”

Then I said, “But you’re fiduciaries in the car business so I have to talk in terms of money and cars so it’s really simple. You’re about to spend $48 million, it’s all posted in your books, budgeted for a Clean Water Act into law, you’re about to do it. You’re a responsible company.

Our system with the green roof and the landscape’s 13, so we’re gonna save you $35 million dollars day one over a conventional design. With $35 million dollars savings in CAPEX they went with the Ford Taurus at a four percent margin out of Chicago. This is the equivalent of receiving an order for $900 million dollars worth of cars. You want it or not? Anyhow, approved.

The building makes more energy than it needs to operate. We’re harvesting solar energy. It’s a net energy exporter for the year, 13 percent.

For Herman Miller, we designed a building full of daylight and fresh air for ten percent more than the Butler building and look what happened. The building cost 15 million bucks. Three hundred and fifty people moved from a dark building to this building full of fresh air, daylight, and the Beach Boys, right.

We looked at them and said, “Hey, you’re in Michigan, you know, where do you wanna be?”

California, of course, so we built California. They go to work in aloha shirts; it’s fantastic but look what happened. Year before, they were making $250 million in furniture. A year later, they’re making 350. That’s a $100 million bump, same people. Take out the materials; it’s worth $45 million a year in profit to the company. Well, that’s amazing. That’s revenue. That’s growth and the building cost, oh, $15 million. Oh, that means we paid for the entire building in four months. That’s what that means. We didn’t save a little energy.

You go look at a spreadsheet for a big company. The energy is nothing. You can’t find it. It’s in the operating [fading voice 00:49:36]

Look here, people, watch what happens. NASA asked me to help with the Mars station a couple years ago and I said, “I can’t do this.”

“Why not?”

“Because you haven’t landed on earth yet.”

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: We’re a planet, too, and your buildings are really not up to speed. If you guys can do that, then what if you tried to do it down here first? Why can’t this stay on earth?

We had fun. We went to the Johnson Space Center. We went to the room where they heard the words, “Houston, we have a problem” and we started the project there.

We said, “Let’s have the same team that can do this.”

“Well, how are you gonna power it?”

“Oh, nuclear power, yeah, got it, and 93 million miles away.” Figured that out for us.

“Okay, we’ll do that.”

“Oh, how about—oh, what’s going on here with the water?”

“Well, we can drink our own urine now. We’re gonna have to.”

You think about San Diego and Sydney and toilet to tap. Oh, yuck, right, and we learn how to do this. The Singaporeans figured it out. Turns out it’s a PR campaign. You know what they did? They said well, Malaysia could turn off the tap on fresh water on us in a second. They just called it new water. Changes. Who wants old water?

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Changes. It’s H2O, what’s the problem? Get over it. We said, “What if we built a space station on earth?”

Based on a tranquility base, let’s go to Mars later. Let’s go here first. We got to stand right there. It was fun. So, it’s, “Houston, we look for a solution.”

There it is. That’s where I landed. I call it a geosynchronous space station, low orbit.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: It’s at NASA Ames Research Center. It’s right here. That’s the headquarters now in California. You see these are wind tunnels and stuff. They all have exoskeletons. These are all research buildings.

We design a building and it’s designed to make 120 percent of the energy it requires. It purifies its own water. It breathes every three seconds. Every three seconds these windows open and close automatically. It’s the most highly censored building in the nation. The people that work there I call them the terranauts. They get to go home at night.

The building is constantly breathing. It knows the temperature, the humidity, the pollen counts. It’s fantastic. Guess what, same budget as a normal building. What we did is not to say, “Let’s go for LEED platinum,” and be less bad in energy use, which is fine. It’s a great thing. I mean LEED’s very important. It gets people a key to the—or a shibboleth into the Temple of Hope.

Here’s how much energy we needed. Here’s what we need after we put on the PV’s. Here’s what we get when we put it on the parking lot. The building could be a tree. The idea is what don’t we want? What do we want? Let’s be explicit.

Okay, so that’s what we did. Then we started to think well, this is about vitalism. It’s about living things. Let’s revitalize places. Brad Pitt and I were looking at the Lower Ninth Ward. We said, “Let’s just help these people.”

The first thing we did was put Cradle to Cradle fabric on scaffolding, lit it up with solar energy and people could donate over the internet. Six million dollars came in to help and then we hired 28 different architects. Everybody could get a different architect if they wanted. It was so much fun.

Here’s for China. Here’s a design for a concept for a new city on the rail from Beijing airport where the buildings are all covered with greenhouses and this is a city that grows its own food.

This is an office building that grows all the food for the people who work there.

I did this for the White House for the fun of it. John Holdren, America’s Chief Scientist said, “What is this?”

I said, “This is Washington growing its own food.”

He said, “Oh, this is the first time I’ve ever seen Washington being productive.”

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: We’re looking at new technologies, right. What are we supposed to do? What if our window shades were salad bars? I don’t know, it’s fun.

Here’s a building we designed for Barcelona. The floor plans are here on the right. We don’t have potted plants. We’re gonna restore the ancient butterflies that going extinct in Barcelona. Why can’t a building restore biodiversity? Why not?

We wanna be new. We wanna be fresh. I’ve been asked to consult on the future of Beijing and Jiangsu Province and what to do about the wind in these places. Beijing is about to add—see the five rings? They’re gonna add a sixth ring in Hubei Province. They’re gonna double in size, 20 million to 40 million in five years. They don’t have any more water. They don’t have any more power. We’re developing a system of how they can do that.

I’m working on a way that we can create new business powers that are super productive that allow us not to socialize the risk like we did with our banks recently. Let the risk be privatized and let the society benefit.

The developers out here will buy. They will create efficiencies in here in order to get the right to do this, you see. In the end, the entire city will use 25 percent less water and less energy and have twice as many people.

What is the role of design and what is the role of commerce? Jane Jacobs points out it was to evolve two syndromes of survival, what she calls commerce and guardian. Commerce is business, very fast. Guardian is the government. For commerce, I would just like to speculate for a minute.

After I went to Dartmouth, before I went to Yale, I worked for King Hussein. I lived with the Bedouin in the Jordan Valley and my job was the young field representative to look for the sites for the future for the Bedouins to settle because they couldn’t be nomads anymore because of the border with Syria and the border with Iraq and the border with Saudi had closed. Hussein, himself, is a Hashemite Bedouin.

Palestinians were in trouble ’cause the Israelis would come over the river and attack back. It was a real mess. They had been moved to the refugee camps. This is not a great situation.

I learned to live with goats. I love goats but what I realized is if you have one goat and you eat it, that’s currency. It’s flow. It’s here; it’s gone.

Now we look at our financial markets and they deal with currency trading. It’s just so abstract, you see. It’s here and it’s gone. It’s nothing. It’s so derived it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Right, it’s currency.

What happens if you have a herd of goats? Amazing, you have this factory that follows you around and it gives you the wool for your tent and your clothing. It gives you meat. It gives you water bags. It gives you butter. It gives you milk. It gives you oil for cooking. Think about it and it follows you around and it eats everything you can’t.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: It captures solar energy and every little bit of water and then it gives it to you and its first-born children for your kids to play with. It’s awesome, right. Guess where the word capital comes from. Heads, cap, caput. Heads of goats, capital.

I think the other thing I’d like to do and I teach in business schools is to talk about the difference between currency and capital, which we don’t seem to do anymore. If you take the currency of the sun and the earth in a living system and you add solar income, the only thing we have from outside the system—the only income on the planet is energy. That’s our income, right. We don’t have mass incomes, it’s Iranian phosphate, right, with a little cosmic dust and occasional meteorite. That’s about it. Right and then neuron.

Find income, go, and we put the carbon with the income and we get living soil, the basis of life itself. The carbon belongs in the soil not in the atmosphere, right. We sequester this carbon from the atmosphere and we get capital. You eat the apple but you plant the orchard. The orchard is the capital, right.

What we’re looking at with Cradle to Cradle is the concept that I’ve named and it’s the first time I’m presenting it tonight. I call it The Currency. It’s re-currency and then we re-capitalize and then we do it over and over again for all generations.

What is the role of the guardian and the state? Well, the state is very different from commerce, you see. The guardian is very slow. It’s very serious. It reserves the right to kill, go to war, execute criminals and it can be duplicitous. CI is legal.

Business, now, business is fast, it’s efficient, it’s effective, and it’s fundamentally honest because I can’t do business with somebody for very long if I’m not honest. If you put the two together, you get what Jane Jacobs called monstrous hybrids like the Mafia, right. Does business but reserves the right to kill. That’s a problem.

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: You gotta keep these two things separate ’cause the guardian slows down commerce. We heard today that the computer companies are worried that there are 50 standards being used. Every state and country is feeling the need to express their standard ’cause they’re terrified. There’s no uniform consciousness about things.

If the computer companies took on their own design assignments and said, “Oh, no we want it all back. This is our assets. We don’t want them telling us what to do with it ’cause then it gets all mixed up. Why don’t you let us do it but we have good intentions and we have a system.”

We don’t have that. The guardian doesn’t see us with good intentions. They don’t see the system. They’ll just say, “Lead free.” Right, free of, that’s all.

A regulation is a signal of design failure. The state has to step in and say, “Not okay if you pollute this river like that.”

What does a regulator have? Sticks. EPA is in a very desperate situation today. They’re not respected by industry. They’re retreated into the corner. Congress is cutting their budgets and it’s people with sticks.

What we’re saying is what if you could offer industry—what if we could give you carrots big enough to use as sticks?

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Wouldn’t that be interesting? Let’s go hit ’em over the head with it. We’re gonna hit business—like think about it. All those projects I showed you, all those products, they’re not regulated. The fabric is not regulated. There’s nothing to regulate. There’s no toxins. Why is it cheaper? There’s no paperwork. Amazing.

Our goal is a delightfully universe safe, healthy and just world. Clean air, soil, water, power and so on.

What happened in California? Go figure. The legislature put this forward and got it approved. Isn’t that amazing? They call this—I’m sorry I gotta use your language, that’s what we want.

Governor Schwarzenegger called me, sent me a letter. He said, “If you give over Cradle to Cradle to the public through a not-for-profit and your Certification Program, which is your private quality system and you give it to the public, I’ll try to make it the law.”

May 10th, a year a half ago, at Google is Chad Hurley, founder of YouTube; one of our founders is Wendy Schmidt, she’s our chair. The Schmidt family, Eric and Wendy have given us a million and a half dollars. This is Martin Fischer, Stanford University Engineering. This is a representative from Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett. These people Shaw Industries, carpet; Herman Miller’s chairman and so on.

We announced the new institute. The question becomes what does it mean to be native to this planet? EPA had a meeting in the Hanford nuclear plant and Pacific National Laboratory where they brought together scientists and semiologists to find a way to mark the ground with a sign that would explain to even extraterrestrial 5,000 years from now not to dig here.

What is the sign of the most extreme danger? An amazing assignment. When the Indians, who were there, the Yakama, heard this, they started laughing. They said, “You know you really don’t need to worry about this. We’ll tell them where it is.”

Audience: [Laughter]

McDonough: Tell me computers, when do you think computers will begin to think like humans? That reminds me of a story. How about your mind is that you could have a 5,000-year-old memory. Isn’t that something?

The question is how do we love all the children and all species for all time? How do we glance at the sun and see the moon and the stars? Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings and think. Not about how to be nothing, how to be something.

Think, re-think, imagine, re-imagine, learn, re-learn.

Thank you.


Audience: The only thing that I pretty much—that leaves my home any more is packaging. Packaging that isn’t designed to be reused. Without incorporating government to direct what packaging’s gonna be made of and how it’s gonna be called to fit in all the other things that they’ve tried to do. What solution do we have to minimize what is otherwise designed to be an external waste?

McDonough: First of all, the language, I would shift your language, if you don’t mind. You used the word minimize. You said, “What we could we do to minimize?”

I don’t use that. I would say, “What could we do to optimize?” Okay. If you start with minimize, then you’re staying here and you’re like that. What is it if we—so, I am working on that. Right now I’m designing new kinds of packaging as we speak and all based on Cradle to Cradle and I’m very excited about it.

Some of the biggest companies in the world are moving into this and it’s not because they’re regulated. See, that’s the part that’s exciting. You gotta understand. All those companies I showed you are in business. They didn’t come to us because somebody said, “You have to do it or you’ll get punished.” They came because it’s a business opportunity to do the right thing and they’re people, too.

On the polymers, I’ll give an example. I am really concerned about polyester terephthalate as maybe you are, too, P E T. ’Cause P E T contains a residue of a catalytic reaction known as antimony. Antimony is a carcinogenic heavy metal. Now, don’t get scared, in a water bottle it’s thresholding legally, et cetera. Don’t get scared.

The thing is it’s just sub-optimal from my perspective ’cause there’s no reason for it to be that way. We can use titanium, positively fine catalyst. The other thing is that with these materials, they’re tested against the use for which they’ve been put. What about unattended consequences? What happens if a woman in India burns a polyester bottle to make tea? Then we have antimony trioxide in the air.

If you design for the whole system and we say, “Polyester, wow, are we smart or what? Transparent material that’s infinitely reusable for all intents and purposes. We can even repair the polymer chains in there.”

Right. What if we designed that for constant human reuse? See that’s a use for oil, for example, because if I take the hydrocarbons out of the ground or the carbohydrates of the ground, as you know, carbon. It’s family. I can infinitely reuse it, then I have what I call endless resourcefulness. Endless resourcefulness is not just the materials themselves because we’re designing a whole system for that, which is how to celebrate the reuse of these materials and get them back efficiently and effectively.

We also have the endless resourcefulness of human creativity doing principled action in the world of practical affairs. Absolutely, packaging is ridiculous today. I mean really, really terrifyingly stupid and it’s ready for a complete optimization.

We’re finding we can do it much faster if we don’t make it a regulatory argument. We make it a design assignment that is urgent and that it’s cost-effectively deployed.

Certain things we have to talk about in society. For example, waste management is going to China and telling them we should do consideration. See that worries me because if you look at the history of incineration and energy, wastes energy, right.

You get to a place like Germany where the codes are very strict for human health a lot of the waste energy plants actually take more energy than they make because they have to run all the precipitating filters to protect the air.

They’ve locked everybody into needing all the plastics to get the cafories to burn all the wet garbage. Now the whole system is completely sub-optimized and we’re stuck. Terrible. Terrible. Right, so we give ’em ten years.

We gotta make decisions now that are principled and the packaging can be optimized relative to new systems of deployment.

In this country, with polyesters, for example, we’re recycling in the 20 something percent range. If we look at a place like Curitiba Brazil, they’re up in the mid-70’s. Who gets to learn from whom?

It’s a very exciting time and the last thing we should do with hydrocarbons is burn them. See then the carbon is in the wrong place. If we make solid objects, infinite resourcefulness. Recapitalize.

We have ways to design all the inks and papers and get rid of all the nasties and do this all with just a positive attitude and good chemistry. Right, that’s what it’s gonna take and you gotta do it with business and you gotta go fast.

Audience: First, thank you for your work and for coming to speak with us. Two questions, first is, where are you teaching this business class and when and how can I get in?


McDonough: Right here; right now.

Audience: I’ve presented with an interesting approach to waste energy involving a plasma torch, basically, a super cube material precipitating it into basic materials as industrial inputs. I would imagine that this has crossed your path at some point. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on it.

McDonough: I’d be happy to talk about that but not right now because you have to look at that as part of the whole system and the question is what energy where? If it’s being used as a way of not having a reuse system, then it could be problematic. It has to be seen in its context. All these things need to be seen in context.

It’s like is plasma a good or bad? It depends. Is lead good or bad? It depends. It’s the context.

If you’re taking nutrients and doing that, they might be better deployed in soil. You’d have to look at it.

Audience: Thanks, again, for speaking. I just wanted to know is it fair to question sustainability of the mass production and everything that goes into solar power pads. Is solar power an issue?

McDonough: Of course, it’s fair. It’s all fair. Yeah, the way we look at that is you got a bunch of issues. You got the invited energy, right, and I remember 20 years ago, we looked at solar collectors and it took them about 12 years of energy production to pay back the aluminum frame.

You really wanna look at them as a whole system and how much energy it takes to deploy them. The other thing that’s interesting about the solar collectors is that we see, for example, cadmium telluride. Cadmium is really concerning ’cause it’s a carcinogen. It’s also a mutagen. You say, “Oh, it’s a toxic material, that’s a problem.” Indeed, if it’s in the biosphere.

Would I put a nickel-cadmium battery in front of a child with a little toy hammer? I don’t think so. Okay, but if I put it on a roof and it’s maki