I’m probably naive, or easily suckered, but sue me: Whenever I read what architect and designer William McDonough says, I get optimistic. Excited, even. His is the kind of environmentalism I want to be part of, the kind that will be easy to sell to the public. It promises growth and abundance instead of guilt, shrinkage, and doom. It conceives a future that has room for the unbridled expression of our bursting impulse to create and innovate.
This interview with Newsweek is a case in point.
For those unfamiliar with McDonough’s ideas (most famously presented in Cradle to Cradle), it’s a great introduction. For those of us who are familiar, it’s a great update on what’s currently happening. And what’s currently happening is just remarkable. Consider this:
[At the Rohner textile plant in Switzerland] we designed a fabric safe enough to eat. The manufacturing process uses no mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, heavy-metal contaminants or chemicals that cause ozone depletion, allergies, skin desensitization or plant and fish toxicity. We screened 8,000 commonly used chemicals and ended up with 38. When inspectors measured the effluent water, they thought their instruments were broken. The water was as clean as Swiss drinking water. A garden club started using the waste trimmings as mulch. Workers no longer had to wear protective clothing. And it eliminated regulatory paperwork, so they’ve reduced the cost of production by 20 percent. Why spend money on paperwork, when you can spend it delivering service or paying your workers a living wage?
I don’t agree with McDonough that gov’t regulation of industry will become unnecessary any time soon, but surely even the most dedicated enviro, the most vociferous anti-corporate activist, would agree that regulation is not the best solution, or even the second-best. With cradle-to-cradle principles in place, businesses save money through efficiency and reduced paperwork. Their workers are happier, more productive, and paid better wages. The environment is cleaner. And the lion shall lay down with the lamb …
I also found this intriguing:
Within the month, we will be branding cradle to cradle. Products that meet our criteria for biological and technical nutrients can be certified to use our logo. A note on the packaging will tell you how to recycle it. You’ll know: this one goes into my tomato plot when I’m finished or this one goes back to industry forever. We have already approved a nylon, some polyester textiles, running tracks, window shades, chairs from Herman Miller and Steelcase, and carpets from Shaw, which is part of Berkshire Hathaway. The first was a Steelcase fabric that can go back to the soil. We’re now working on electronics on a global scale.
If done well and seriously — and I wouldn’t anticipate McDonough allowing his “brand” to be diluted — such a label will make “organic” look like peanuts.
If I had to predict, I’d say all the talk about environmentalism joining forces with evangelicals or national security hawks, or "dying," or transforming itself into a social justice movement, will fade. But the kind of stuff McDonough is working on, the kind of stuff that tangibly remakes the material objects we interact with every day, will one day be seen as a transformative historical force.
But seriously, don’t quote me on that.