Green Guru William McDonough Must Change, Demand His Biggest Fans

McDonough at his Charlottesville, Virginia, offices | photograph by Martien Mulder

I just received an email from Roger Cox, an attorney in the Netherlands who is one of green architect William McDonough's most ardent fans and also happens to been leading Holland's "cradle to cradle" movement. However, Cox is now launching a campaign against his hero to open up the C2C movement to all.

Last November in my article "The Mortal Messiah" I chronicled the tragedy of McDonough, the star-studded green designer who keeps short-circuiting his potentially world-changing C2C concept. Well, it turns out the very limitations we highlighted—McDonough's inability to relinquish control—are again coming back to bite him. Cox informed me that he's just posted a letter on Duurzaam Gebouwd, an influential sustainable building blog in the Netherlands, pleading for McDonough to open his small private firm up to a public private partnership with the Dutch government. As others have before him, Cox has finally concluded that the Davos-trotting architect doesn't have the resources or the scale to to seize on the C2C mania that's been bubbling throughout his country.

Over the past two years the Dutch have become enraptured by McDonough and Michael Braungart's blueprint for a waste-free society, "igniting"—as I wrote in November—"a reaction similar to the one caused by An Inconvenient Truth in the United States." However, designers there are also itching to practice their very own C2C design, which doesn't jibe with McDonough's legal ownership of the term. Cox has been one of C2C's most aggressive Dutch missionaries and in 2007 even organized the first Let’s Cradle conference. Now, even he concludes that "there’s a need for the founding fathers of C2C to change their closed and proprietary approach of C2C. Urgently." Despite McDonough's global fame, in reality only "some 150 products were certified in the last 8 years"—a drop in the bucket in terms of impact compared to the urgent ubiquitous change McDonough preaches. 

Cox's plea is for McDonough to partner with the Dutch government in order to create a public private partnership that would include a C2C certification institute, governmental regulation, and the ability for businesses and governments to practice C2C design. (Of course, McDonough's bank account might have something to do with it. As Cox points out: "currently in the Netherlands [McDonough's second largest commercial base] C2C constitutes mostly a vehicle for McDonough and Braungart for consulting.")."Failing to do so," warns Cox, "will render C2C as ineffective a tool for sustainability." He tells me he's been trying to convince McDonough & Co. to pursue the PPP for over a year now, however, he says, McDonough has yet to commit. Cox felt his last resort was a public call to action. "There is no middle of the road solution for this," he concedes.

Since posting his letter, several Dutch governmental organizations have already expressed equal frustration, some with even harsher criticism about McDonough and Braungart's conflict of interest with C2C certification. Wrote one program manager from a Dutch environmental department in response to Cox's letter, "All these parties [Dutch organizations]...not only experience that the 'butcher is approving its own merchandise' but also that 'the butcher can't deliver the merchandise.'" So Bill, what's it going to be? Last summer he told me he was once again going "open source" C2C (just like he had told Jason Pearson back at GreenBlue in 2003). His track record clearly isn't promising. However for all of our sakes, I hope he proves us wrong.

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  • Timothy Allan

    I agree with Louise. The term and variants thereof have been in collective existence for some time in science circles. In intellectual property law a term used to descriptively explain something cannot be trademarked. It is in the common interest that the term is opened up to wider scrutiny and use. I believe that Braungarts appointment as the chair of C2C at Erasmus University Rotterdam proves he is trying to open it out. It needs willing contributors and people to make this work though.

  • Louise Richards-Green

    I was under the impression that the original concept (and term) was introduced by Walter R. Stahel of The Product-Life Institute in the 1970s. I am curious as to why the cradle to cradle paradigm is McDonough's.

  • Dick Thesingh

    I understand Daniel Sack's comments. However what's realy going on in the Netherlands is not quite as described in his article. He writes:"However, designers there are also itching to practice their very own C2C design, which doesn't jibe with McDonough's legal ownership of the term." I ask you mr. Sack, please name one dutch designer who is in this position?
    What realy is going on in the Netherlands is that established designers want to continue to work as they always did, than call it C2C and profit from the name.
    I agree that a stronger support structure is needed for the enthusiastic Dutch market, this will take some time. But I know strong progress is being made. In the meantime a number of dutch consulting companies have closed strategic alliences with Braungart and their staff have been trained.
    Maybe it is also of interest to know that the largest Dutch research and consultancy company (completely state owned) TNO, has been approached by Braungart for a stategic alliance back in 2007. Top management decided C2C wasn't the way to go.
    As for certification: Mr Sack can you please tell me which product from which company in Holland has been offered for certification and found any difficulties (Other than poor design).

    Yes, certification needs to be put at greater distance from the founders in a more transparant construction. This will happen not just because Bill and Michael know this needs to happen, but because they want it to happen. The standard needs protection however from industry lobbyist and lawyers. A construction is underway and probably we will hear of this yhe second half of 2009.
    An adequate support structure is under construction.

    For your information:
    In oktober 2006 I asked Bill McDonough to support developments in the Netherlands. In may 2007 I invited Bill and Michael to conduct a workshop with the partners of the regional development in Limburg (a province in the Netherlands).In oktober 2007 I organised the first C2C conference in LImburg. Since oktober 2006 I work on the introduction of C2C and have weekly contact with the founders. Great progress has been made since, not only due to me, but due to the great ideas of Bill and Michael and also due to the efforts of people like Rogier Cox and may others who came on board during our efforts. It's not an easy road, but a very promising one. I donot only embrase the philosophy, I am convinced of the integrity of the philosophers. From first hand, no hear say, and directly from daily experience.

  • Steve Bolton

    MBDC is delighted by the deep interest in the Cradle to Cradle design framework within many countries in recent years. We welcome the range of ideas that supporters and critics bring to the fore on how best to spread the principles outlined by our co-founders, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, in their 2002 book.

    In the meantime, we continue to explore how to help clients implement the larger vision through a defined approach and ensure the integrity of Cradle to Cradle(SM) Certification for products and ingredients -- a science-based, quantitative process for implementing the design framework through specific, published criteria. Last spring we posted on our certification website < > the cutoff values we use to assess the potential impact substances could have on human and environmental health. In addition, we continue to improve the certification program through input from our external Technical Advisory Group (program documents are available on our certification website). We also provide consulting services that help clients learn about and integrate the design framework in their businesses or institutions by optimizing product life cycles, organizational operations, and client decision-making.

    We are disappointed that Ms. Sacks and some others seem concerned about our efforts to manage our business and help clients pursue our co-founders' vision to "eliminate the concept of waste" through design strategies and assessment protocols. We know there are challenges, such as moving large, extensive product supply chains toward a new objective of sustainable design, often where research of preferred chemistry is still an emerging effort. Often the design changes we recommend are not trivial and it takes time to design, test and commercialize new products or processes. In our work with clients, implementation of the vision also is challenged by the need for larger infrastructure to safely recover and recycle products and materials following their use. The pace of adoption is quickening and significant progress is being made on both fronts.

    We welcome constructive ideas about spreading the Cradle to Cradle framework and protocols, as we continue to expand our capacity and partnerships, including those with other consultants who will lead certification projects within their own countries. We remain dedicated to making a positive change in the design of goods and services working openly with clients, individuals and organizations throughout the world.

    Cradle to Cradle(SM) is a service mark of MBDC.

    -The staff of MBDC

  • Jean-Sebastien Trudel

    C2C is a great concept, but it has its limitations. For one, the C2C certification is qualitative. I favor the Life cycle assessment (LCA), which not only is a quantitative approach, but is also recognized by an international body of scientists. LCA is standardized (ISO 14040 - 14044) and can lead to a very serious certification as well: a type III ecolabel called an EPD (ISO 14025).

    McDonough's C2C certification falls in the type I ecolabel category.

  • Emil Möller

    When I read the open letter of Cox to McDonough and Braungart, I see he wishes them financial succes.

    For the obvious reason that would mean C2C would indeed become the main stream phenomenon, it has the potential to be. And thereby allow it's system changing potential to unfold.

    This is contrary to the suggestion in the article by Sacks, as that there would be a $$ related issue, where Cox would be in competition with McD and B, or not wish them to do well and even better.

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