This 20-minute video changed my entire perspective on architecture and the green movement. William McDonough has thrown green architecture into the spotlight for the last two decades. After watching the TED video below, I became it’s most fervent evangelist. I shared the link with everyone I could, ran to the library and checked out his book Cradle to Cradle (printed on polypropylene paper), and devoured it. To this day, every time I see a new building or consider building a house of my own I weigh factors such as environmental impact, energy creation and consumption, efficient use of light, orientation of the home for maximum thermal efficiency, and insulating building materials.
It could safely be said that this man, William McDonough, changed the way I see the world. You can imagine how crushed I was upon discovering that this video contains numerous lies, most of the future projects mentioned have now failed, and McDonough himself has been a huge stumbling block to the progress of a movement he was instrumental in creating.
Fast Company wrote an exposee on McDonough entitled Green Guru Gone Wrong. I recommend reading the entire article. For your convenience, though, here are some of the highlights:
- Oberlin College – John H. Scofield, an Oberlin physics professor who has taught in the building, began monitoring its energy use when it was completed in 2000. He calculated that it was consuming more than twice the energy projected and drawing 84% of its power from local power plants, rather than renewable sources. “We should sue William McDonough + Partners,” Scofield told The Oberlin Review in 2002
- Nike – “He wanted to charge us for every supplier we rolled it out to. We didn’t own it after we paid all this money, which made no sense,” says the person from the Nike team. “You can develop lists until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t have effective ways to roll that out to the supply chain, it’s not going to change it.” Nike, which went on to improve its supply chain independently, confirmed this account to Fast Company and said that, given the huge amount McDonough was demanding, it decided to terminate the relationship. The company adds that “neither Bill nor MBDC designed materials for Nike.”
- Interface Carpet – And when Interface was preparing to go to market, “Bill presented a business plan that said he owned the rights,” says John Picard, an environmental consultant on the team, “like it was his intellectual property. He was asking for an obscene amount [of money].” Says Picard of the unfortunate falling-out McDonough eventually had with the company: “The issue is that some of the things he thinks he originated no one owns. These are things that need to be blown up, not sequestered down with a patent.” Interface went on to develop its recyclable carpet, now a nearly $1 billion business, without McDonough.
- GreenBlue – It wasn’t until McDonough left that GreenBlue, specifically its Sustainable Packaging Coalition, took off. The coalition now includes 190 companies — Procter & Gamble, Kraft, and Starbucks among them — that are working to develop environmentally sound packaging practices. “Many people still think of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a project that has succeeded because of Bill McDonough, which is simply not the case,” Pearson stresses. (McDonough had told me, “I launched something called the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.”) Indeed, some have argued that the coalition is succeeding despite McDonough: Earlier this year, his materials firm, MBDC, told GreenBlue it would have to license the term cradle to cradle if the nonprofit wanted to use it. “Our respective lawyers went back and forth at substantial cost to GreenBlue,” says Pearson, now GreenBlue’s executive director, “[but] I don’t have the financial resources, nor the strong motivation, to stop them.” By 2010, the very nonprofit that McDonough founded will be obliged to use terms such as “green chemistry,” “closed-loop material systems,” and “industrial ecology” to describe its work. Thanks to McDonough and his lawyers, Pearson says, “we will eliminate the phrase cradle to cradle from any of our materials.”*
- Billionaires – “I was with a group at MIT [in May] with influential billionaires in the room. One person said, ‘Why aren’t we working with Bill?’ Three people out of the eight had had dealings with Bill, and they were not favorable,” says Picard. “They were adamant that they did not want to work with him.”
- SMaRT – Companies such as Forbo, Knoll, and Milliken Carpet are starting to reject cradle to cradle in favor of a new transparent certification called SMaRT, administered by a nonprofit coalition of government, companies, and environmental groups.
- Huangbaiyu – In our first few China discussions, McDonough never mentioned Huangbaiyu — his most widely publicized and only realized project there. But over the summer, I finally ask him about the village where he’d taken Friedman. “That little village project?” he says, clearly caught off guard. “We’ve basically come to the conclusion that [China] should let the villagers live where they are.” The plans, he explains, consolidated all the farmers into concentrated areas. “What we’re saying now, based on our experience in this village, is that that’s not a good idea.” The homes, he admits, are sitting vacant, but brushes most of the blame onto the developer. “It’s sitting there like a lesson,” he says vaguely. “A lesson for all of us.”
What’s the summary of the summary? McDonough is an impressive man, but he dreams on a scale much larger than he can deliver. His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high fees licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.
The future lies with green architecture and manifacturing, but it does not lie with William McDonough.