This month’s Fast Company has an expose on green architecture guru William McDonough. It is fairly brutal.
McDonough’s come in for plenty of hero worship (no small amount of it from me), but as Danielle Sacks tells it, he’s a vainglorious name-dropper and celeb-schmoozer, prone to claiming credit beyond what he is due, devoted above all to his own mythology, with a history of grand pronouncements followed by failures of execution. His much-hyped eco-city in China is crumbling. His buildings don’t perform as well as hyped. His cradle-to-cradle syndication program has gone nowhere. Worst of all, he seems rather clumsily greedy, scuttling one partnership after another with inflated financial demands.
Way back in 1995, [Interface] decided to pull together an Eco Dream Team of the most influential thinkers on the environment who believed business could be a force of change … The group was hired to advise on Interface’s environmental transformation, which included recycling — a radical move in a famously dirty industry. At the time, Hunter Lovins says, “Bill was trying to gain the reputation as the thought leader in this field, going around trademarking terms.” (McDonough has applied for more than a dozen trademarks, including “triple top line” and “ride the wind.”) 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.”
When Nike, the largest athletic company in the world, decided to hire him in 1999, McDonough was handed an incredible opportunity to make his ideas a global reality. He was suddenly designing “the protocol for the material for a shoe,” he tells me, and developing a list of chemicals that would render Nike’s footwear and apparel environmentally sound and toxin free.
The folks at Nike remember the collaboration a little differently. “It was devastating that we couldn’t go forward with it,” says someone who worked closely on the project and requested anonymity. When McDonough’s team finished building a list of approved materials for manufacturing, after two years and a hefty consulting fee, Nike told McDonough the time had come to share the details with its thousands of vendors. To the company’s shock, McDonough responded that he owned the list — it was proprietary. “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.”
Even with nonprofit ventures he helped found:
Indeed, some have argued that the [GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging 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 [Jason] 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.”
In interviews, McDonough seems to have simply written most of this stuff out of his memory and out of his myth. There’s no spark of self-awareness about it.
I guess your reaction to this article will depend on what role McDonough has played for you. To me, his ideas are an inspiration — and nothing in the piece tarnishes that. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that he’s somewhat vain, selfish, and inept in the world of business. There’s no reason to expect that people with brilliant ideas will be good at bringing them to market.
It’s always been on my list of Things I Would Do If I Were Rich: find brilliant people with great ideas, who are fumbling around trying to master business strategy, and simply pluck them out of that world. Give them enough money to live a comfortable life and instruct them to focus on thinking, writing, and experimenting. I’d insist that all the resultant ideas be open source and free to use for anyone; I’d hire other people to be in charge of implementation and commercialization.
Generally speaking, prophets just embarrass themselves when they try to move outside the prophet business. No one is immune to the tricks an inflated ego can play.