Green Guru Gone Wrong: William McDonough

Green architect William McDonough has been hailed as a water-walking visionary. The truth is far more complicated.

Green Guru Gone Wrong: William McDonough
McDonough at his Charlottesville, Virginia, offices | photograph by Martien Mulder McDonough at his Charlottesville, Virginia, offices | photograph by Martien Mulder

The paparazzi should have been hiding in the hedges that evening. Cindy Crawford, Goldie Hawn, John Mayer, and some 50 other Hollywood and media types were gathered in the Malibu home of one of L.A.’s biggest power brokers, Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, and his wife, Kelly. The guest of honor at this 2005 dinner party: William McDonough. “He is,” Kelly Meyer tells me later, “the environmental architect of our time.”


One of the so-called Hollywood eco-wives, Meyer had been introduced to McDonough by Cameron Diaz, who had herself met the architect while filming a documentary on renewable energy. On the California evening in question, the Meyers’ guests were to be schooled in McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” concept, his call for the redesign of design itself. Surrounded by oversize renderings of McDonough’s iconic works — the 10-acre green roof atop Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge factory, Herman Miller’s GreenHouse offices — the celebs heard firsthand the environmental legend’s manifesto for a waste-free world. “He talked about moving this forward without deprivation and self-flagellation,” Meyer remembers.

Of all the people McDonough met that night, Gucci’s former creative director made the most lasting impression. “One of my favorite moments was meeting Tom Ford,” McDonough told me this summer. “I had enough of a conversation with him that I could call him up and say, ‘Hey, Tom, remember we met at that dinner? I think it’s time for cradle to cradle to move into the fashion industry. Could I get your help with that?’ ”

McDonough, born in Tokyo, grew up watching his father, a Seagram’s president, perfect the art of strategic hobnobbing. And three years later, he is still harvesting the fruit planted that night in Malibu. In July, Meyer and her good friend Laurie David, ex-wife of comedian Larry David, traveled with McDonough to Iceland, where McDonough hosts a getaway every year for guests such as PayPal cofounder Elon Musk and actress Daryl Hannah, who voyage north to dream up solutions to the climate crisis over salmon fishing, wine, and Icelandic pony riding.


The Iceland adventure is McDonough’s homespun answer to Richard Branson’s gathering at his private Necker Island, which McDonough attended earlier this year — along with former British prime minister Tony Blair, Google cofounder Larry Page, and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. “I have a kind of wonderment when I’m with all these people,” he says about the Branson getaway. “Like, I wonder how many fabulous things we could come up with. It’s literally wonderful — full of wonder.” For his own iteration, McDonough, who is repped by the Hollywood agency CAA, cherry-picks people he meets throughout the year. “I say, ‘You must come to Iceland.’ I don’t say much more than that,” he explains, having also learned from his father the power of the soft sell. The guests pay their own way.

After nearly a week along the Vatnsdalsa River, Laurie David is fired up about making household names of both McDonough and cradle to cradle, his defining idea. “Any time you put people in a room with Bill McDonough, they leave there blown away, their mouths agape,” she tells me. “I had a similar feeling when I first met Al Gore.” Coming from David, that’s quite a statement: The former TV exec helped persuade Gore to turn his apocalyptic slide show into a film and took a producer credit on An Inconvenient Truth. For David and the rest of McDonough’s legions of acolytes, he is nothing less than an oracle. “Al Gore helped us figure out the problem,” David says, “and I think Bill McDonough has a lot of the answers.”

No one has migrated from the fringes of enviro-geek design to the soft spotlight of pop culture as gracefully as McDonough. Long before the word “sustainability” was part of the average CEO’s vocabulary — and before, as McDonough puts it, “LEED [the green building standard] was even a twinkle in somebody’s eye” — he had begun postulating a third industrial revolution, one with the potential to transform how goods are made, cities are built, and literally everything is broken down and reused. His radical cradle-to-cradle philosophy demands that every product be designed for disassembly at the end of its lifetime, either returning harmlessly to the soil or going back into a “closed-loop industrial cycle” to be reused. With mainstream America beginning to see that we may have a planetary problem on our hands, McDonough has come to be seen as both a prophet and a savior. If only it were that simple.


McDonough, 57, now owns or is a partner in four businesses, with cradle to cradle as the common thread: McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) is a materials firm that consults with companies on their products’ “cradle to cradleness” and certifies them; his architecture firm, William McDonough + Partners, designs buildings that embody cradle-to-cradle principles; McDonough Consulting manages the designer’s personal brand (primarily speaking gigs and corporate consulting); and as a venture partner at VantagePoint Venture Partners (one of the clean-tech Silicon Alley VC firms behind Tesla Motors), McDonough advises on investments with an eye toward producing cradle-to-cradle products.

McDonough has been building this portfolio of businesses, and his credentials as a prophet, for more than half his life. As early as 1985, a mere decade after graduating from Yale during the 1970s energy crisis, he landed on page one of the New York Times business section for designing the Environmental Defense Fund’s national headquarters. The Wall Street Journal profiled him a few years later on its front page, highlighting his firm’s breakthrough design for a solar-powered skyscraper in Poland (the building was never built, says McDonough, due to the fall of the Communist regime). McDonough really began to solidify his visionary status in 1991, when he met Michael Braungart, a German chemist and former Greenpeace director — and the key to extending McDonough’s environmental design principles beyond architecture. Together, they arrived at the cradle-to-cradle idea, which would soon become synonymous with McDonough. “I remember Michael saying to me one day, ‘You’ve got the ability to carry this message, and you will be really good at it,’ ” says McDonough, who is known for being as charismatic as he is eloquent.

Braungart introduced McDonough to the mayor of Hannover, Germany, who commissioned him to write a revolutionary manifesto for sustainable design; a few years later, that document helped win the young and relatively inexperienced architect the coveted post of dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. This lofty position gave McDonough the ideal platform for developing his own voice and spreading his message. Despite a thin administrative résumé, McDonough had a vision for remaking the world that seduced nearly everyone he encountered. “Much of the challenge in the environmental movement is to tell compelling stories in a way that is accessible to a broad public,” says Maurice Cox, an architecture professor at the university who was part of the team that hired McDonough in 1994. “We were struck by his ability to tell a story, to make environmental issues seem to matter. I think there was also an incredible urgency that he communicated.”


During McDonough’s five years as the “Green Dean,” he moved his architecture firm from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, building environmental landmarks such as Gap’s corporate campus and Nike’s European headquarters. He and Braungart opened MBDC, the materials-research firm, to build a database of “all chemicals used by humans,” step one in constructing the commercial platform for their cradle-to-cradle idea. By this point, few would have guessed that McDonough was once a shy kid who had cycled through 19 different schools before he was 18, or that he’d learned his hypnotic oratory by studying a book called The Art of Memory, which chronicles how Roman senators gave gripping three-hour speeches that brought audiences to their knees. He became a regular on the university speaking circuit and cultivated a passionate corporate following, including Herman Miller and Steelcase. At the same time, his day job at UVA was slipping through the cracks. “It was busy and difficult for him to manage,” says Judith Kinnard, who became chair of the department during his tenure. “I think Bill was focused more on the big picture than the details of integrating his ideas into the school.” McDonough left in 1999.

Now a former academic, an architect, a materials expert, a corporate consultant, and an eco-evangelist, by 2002 McDonough had become the face of sustainable design. That year, he and Braungart published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. It was ghostwritten by a poet, and in its wake, McDonough was named a Fast Company Master of Design and ordained by Wired as the “Prophet of Bloom.” Soon enough, it wasn’t just companies wanting to pair up with McDonough, it was entire countries, including China. He currently serves as cochair of the China — U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, as a member of GE’s Ecomagination board, and as chair of the Future of Sustainable Construction for the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He is a board member of Prince Charles’s business and the environment program, as well as the recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development and a National Design Award. He was Esquire‘s 2005 “Big Thinker of the Year” and one of Time‘s “Heroes for the Planet.”

Today, McDonough charges some $50,000 a speech. He’s a regular at thought-leadership conferences like TED, the Clinton Global Initiative, and Google Zeitgeist, where he networks with entrepreneurs and politicians, cementing his role in history. He and Brad Pitt cofounded a New Orleans nonprofit and are recruiting architects to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. In May, Vanity Fair, in an adulatory seven-page profile, crowned him “a prophet of the sustainability and clean-technology movements.”


“This is how my life works,” McDonough says, aglow at his good fortune.

Charlottesville is no Hollywood, no Davos, not even an Iceland. Although the Green Dean is no more, McDonough still calls the small college town home. Housed in a lemon-yellow building that looks more dentist office than toxicity-testing chamber, MBDC is marked by a laminated computer printout tacked to the door. A few blocks away, I meet McDonough at McDonough Consulting, upstairs from his architecture firm, which is now working with NASA to build an office that “operates like an organism” and with Google to make its Mountain View, California, Googleplex more sustainable. As he walks toward me dressed in his signature all-black ensemble, he has a vaporous quality about him, like a mirage coalescing on the spot. The grin on his face recalls what others have told me: You are honored to be in his presence — and he knows it.

McDonough waves me over toward a wall adorned with a few framed photos, including one of him shaking hands with a Chinese official. “If you gave her a cigarette and shaved her head, she would look just like her dad,” he laughs. The official is Deng Nan, Deng Xiaoping’s daughter and McDonough’s cochair at the China — U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. In the photo, as he has told many packed conference halls, Deng Nan had just signed a memorandum for China to adopt cradle to cradle. Then McDonough points to a rendering he created of an ecologically correct Chinese city. It is a utopian image of a skyline that looks more like a sugarcane field, he says, with lush foliage in place of conventional roofs. A mother and son are farming on one. “That’s what’s so great about having an architecture firm,” he says. “We can render ideas visible — it’s really fun.”


McDonough’s office is accented with his own creations: Herman Miller’s first cradle-to-cradle-certified chair, the Mirra; Shaw Industries’ PVC-free EcoWorx “A Walk in the Garden” carpet; Steelcase’s 100% biodegradable nontoxic Climatex fabric. “If you look at most of the people in the environmental movement who talk about the environment, they’re telling other people’s stories,” he says. But what’s so compelling about his stories, he adds, is that “I actually create the stories by doing the work. I am telling my own stories.” He cites Oberlin College’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies — “a building like a tree” — as a quintessential example. “I made this building. It creates more energy than it needs to operate. That’s a great story!” McDonough knows that the more his stories are retold, the more permanent they become.

As someone who believes that “commerce is the engine of change,” as he puts it, McDonough has never confined his ambition to the high plains of principle. The virtue of his cradle-to-cradle idea is that it offers a virtuous result — infinite abundance with no waste — through an unabashedly commercial channel, namely manufacturing. If he could establish himself in that chain as the arbiter of clean products, there is no limit to what it might yield — for everyone. “The faster and larger our business grows,” he told me, “the better the world gets.”

McDonough has struggled, however, to grow that business. He has dabbled with various models in his hope of making cradle to cradle take off. There was the “Ralph Lauren of sustainability” model, in which McDonough would design product lines and become a multimedia personality (abandoned three years ago, after he realized that “really changing the compass of global society is going to require more than a brand”). Then he and Braungart considered selling MBDC to a larger consultancy, only to realize that would mean handing over the intellectual property, a loss of control he couldn’t tolerate. Then there was the nonprofit model, which, McDonough tells me, he has studied and “hasn’t worked.”


McDonough did begin taking steps several years ago to formalize cradle to cradle as an official certification, essentially a LEED-style rating system for product design. He developed 35 criteria — from toxicity to renewable power to social fairness — and began charging companies between $5,000 and $20,000 per certification. Every time he certifies a product, whether as simple as a diaper or as complex as a new office cubicle, he records each of its ingredients’ “cradle to cradleness” in a master database. Ultimately, his plan is for the data to become a sort of Human Genome Project for chemicals.

To date, though, he has certified just 160 products — a good 29,840 short of his stated goal by 2012. “Cradle to cradle’s been out for seven or eight years,” says Rob Watson, founding chairman of LEED, which is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “But to 99% of people out there, they think it’s baby products.” Even McDonough concedes his pace hasn’t been exactly breakneck: “Our situation is sort of spectacularly incipient,” he beams. “We’re right at the beginning of the rollout, even though we’ve been working on this for decades.” (A former colleague notes, “Every meeting I’ve ever had with Bill, he’s always on the cusp of blowing out something big. The future is always just around the corner.”)

In truth, whenever conversation with McDonough veers from his oft-recited script, his elegant tales begin to fray. His new venture-capital gig with VantagePoint, for example, may eventually be an ideal platform for bringing his world-changing vision to scale, a way to bankroll the design and rollout of cradle-to-cradle products. But for now it seems to be simply a way to make ends meet. “It keeps me from running around making my living by giving miscellaneous speeches to miscellaneous groups,” he says. Nor is his 1950s home, the architect tells me after a long awkward pause, a model of sustainability but rather “what I would call a home that’s holding my family while I dream about the house that I’d really like to live in.” His entire suburban lifestyle bears little resemblance to the eco-perfect world he describes from the stage. “I shop at Whole Foods, that kind of stuff,” he says.


McDonough is not above poetic license. When I ask him which building marked the genesis of the sustainable-design movement, he points to the office he designed for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It was the first green office in the U.S.,” he says. Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: “Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office… . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done… . I hate to see false myths perpetuated.” Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn’t his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.”

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements — those whose labors rarely reach the ears of Laurie David — an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. “He’s been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary,” says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that’s where the guys in the trenches get frustrated.”

The carpet company Interface was in the trenches far earlier than most. Way back in 1995, it 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; it included Lovins and her Rocky Mountain Institute cofounder (and then-husband) Amory Lovins, Smith & Hawken cofounder Paul Hawken, and McDonough, then the new dean of UVA’s architecture school. 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.” Interface went on to develop its recyclable carpet, now a nearly $1 billion business, without McDonough. The company confirmed the accuracy of Picard’s account. “I don’t remember that,” McDonough says now.


The Interface implosion cost McDonough an early and prominent chance to demonstrate his world-changing model — and to become first mover in the market for cradle-to-cradle products. (Nearly a decade later, he went on to work with Interface competitor Shaw Industries.) It wasn’t the last time he would cannibalize his own potential. As McDonough’s reputation grew, he earned access to higher-profile companies. 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.

McDonough, who includes a Nike shoe in his standard slide show, recalls the period fondly. “The great thing about working with Nike was it had tremendous interest in communicating with its supply chain, and it took cradle-to-cradle ideas to heart and developed its own strategy for communicating across an immense supply chain, over 3,000 vendors,” he tells me. “Incredible. It inspired us. A lot of what we do today is inspired by our clients.”

Working with Nike “inspired us,” says McDonough. The folks at Nike remember the collaboration a little differently.

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.” McDonough says he doesn’t recall this episode, either.


Then there is McDonough’s “great story” about Oberlin College and his “building like a tree.” McDonough’s stunning Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies facility was completed in 2000; by the next year, actress Susan Sarandon, in a voice-over for The Next Industrial Revolution, a documentary on McDonough, was describing how “the building produces more energy than it consumes,” a claim echoed later that year in a Metropolis magazine profile on the architect. Four years later, in a 2005 TED conference speech, McDonough was still highlighting his own achievement, telling conferees, “Here’s a building at Oberlin College we designed that makes more energy than it needs to operate.” However, 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 (he is not a spokesperson for the university).

The ambitious design McDonough had proposed for Oberlin was significantly over budget — and had a number of engineering flaws — and had to be scaled back. In a 2002 Environmental Building News article about the controversy, Scofield is quoted as saying, “Even after changed plans went into construction, McDonough and others were using 1997 modeling data in their claims about the project. It won awards based on those claims!” David Orr, former chair of Oberlin’s environmental-studies program, concedes that the award-winning building didn’t become a “net energy exporter” until 2006, after the school funded a $1 million upgrade of the solar-power supply. Orr says Oberlin never claimed the building would achieve its goals immediately — “You have to avoid overpromising what you can’t deliver” — but that didn’t prevent McDonough from inserting the story into his globe-trotting sermons.

The Oberlin case is part of a larger pattern, some of his former colleagues say. “McDonough doesn’t care if the facts are wrong,” one told me, “because he’s a self-mythologizer. His job in the world is to convince people that a positive future is possible, and it doesn’t help his cause to admit there are hiccups and failures along the way.”


Inscribed near the entrance of McDonough’s architecture firm in Charlottesville is a favorite mantra: design is the first signal of human intention. He repeats it religiously, and for him it means that every object contains clues to whether it was created with the earth in mind. It is one’s intention, McDonough believes, that one is judged on.

McDonough’s willingness to let good intentions obscure very mixed results appears to have sometimes clouded his own — and others’ — view of his abilities. In Thomas Friedman’s 2006 documentary Addicted to Oil, the Pulitzer Prize — winning journalist held up McDonough as the kind of problem solver who could wean China from its voracious energy consumption. “Bill invited our film crew to join him in Huangbaiyu [in rural northeast China] to see firsthand how cradle to cradle translates to China,” says Friedman in a voice-over, as a herd of cashmere goats ramble by the world-famous architect. As McDonough had been telling countless audiences and reporters, he’d been recruited “to develop protocols for the housing of 400 million people in 12 years,” rural Chinese who were to migrate to a series of brand new eco-cities. In the scene, dozens of partially built homes glimmer in the distance, the first glimpse of McDonough’s redesign of 21st-century Chinese life. “Chinese officials at the highest level of government are listening to Bill,” says Friedman, a few frames later. “And if things go well in this trial village, China, of all places, could become a new model of sustainable development.”

When LEED’s Rob Watson saw the documentary, he called Friedman immediately. “I was like, ‘Tom, you should have talked to me about this before you put it on Discovery!’ ” says Watson, who has been on the ground in China for the last decade developing green building standards and energy codes. “That just made me blow a gasket, because when that was being filmed, things were starting to go south, and [McDonough] knew it — they knew it! And they still put it on film! The whole experiment was touted as a success long after it failed. Nobody’s living there, nobody moved in. It’s sitting there, literally, rotting.”


Shannon May smelled the rot firsthand. An anthropology PhD student from UC Berkeley who lived in Huangbaiyu for nearly two years, May first met McDonough in 2005, the year the project broke ground. But within several months, it became apparent to May that everything from the village’s overall design to its construction was deeply flawed. The homes were suburban-tract style with garages, despite the fact that only four of the expected 1,400 villagers had cars. The backyards were too small for growing feed corn or raising animals, which the villagers needed to make their living. But most absurd to her eye was the plan to use agricultural waste to fuel the biogas plant to power the village: leftover corncobs and stalks were the winter food supply for the cashmere goats, the area’s leading source of cash. Using them meant the goats would starve.

“I started calling Bill and telling him these things, and he would be very responsive and concerned on the phone,” says May, the blonde seen standing behind McDonough in Friedman’s documentary. “What troubled me was that it was as if he knew nothing about the way these people lived. And he seemed concerned, but then nothing would happen after these phone calls.” May says McDonough visited the village only twice while she lived there “for one or two hours at a time, and only when there was a video camera following him.” The supposedly $3,500 homes were costing nearly $12,000 to build, more than 10 times the villagers’ median income. By 2006, only two families had moved in, and they did so because their previous homes had burned down. Even then, they had to use antiquated heating rigs because the renewable energy systems didn’t work.

“It’s been deleted as if he’s never been part of it,” says May, referring to McDonough’s and the China — U.S. Center for Sustainable Development’s Web sites, which have been sanitized of all traces of the village. McDonough declined to be interviewed for a PBS Frontline documentary on the disgraced project that ran earlier this year. “It’s much more like a cover-up,” says May. “He could be such a leader for true world change, such an amazing man. But he’s choosing not to be.”

“It’s been deleted as if he’s never been part of it,” says May, of the failed China project. “It’s much more like a cover-up.”

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.”

Two months later, during one of our last talks, McDonough brings up Huangbaiyu on his own. “I had sort of cut you off when you asked about the village and said I didn’t want to talk about it. But I’m happy to talk about it,” he says quietly. “It’s been the process of taking in what we could have done, should have done, wished we had done, didn’t get done.”

McDonough is vacationing in tony Northeast Harbor, Maine. He has arranged with a friend to swap one of his famous speeches for two weeks in a turn-of-the-century mansion. Fresh from his annual Iceland pilgrimage, he is bursting to tell me about the gift he received from two of his guests. During a bit of whale watching, apparently, John Leggate, the former CIO of BP and a fellow partner at VantagePoint, and Tom Darden, a brownfield developer, had decided that McDonough and Braungart needed a business plan to ramp up cradle to cradle. Back on dry land, they whipped up a 25-page PowerPoint presentation and gave it to their host. “We applauded, jumped up and down, and gave each other hugs,” recalls McDonough.

The whole event sounds suspiciously like a business intervention. And McDonough seems to recognize that something has to give. He tells me he’s taking the year off from working on the “cult of personality” so he can focus instead on how to make cradle to cradle ubiquitous. “I’m not a hyper entrepreneur business head who wants to get an MBA,” he says. “I’m a designer who dreams stuff. I do dreamy stuff. The level of business that I can operate is like running a hardware store.”

“I’m a designer who dreams stuff,” McDonough says. “The level of business I can operate is like a hardware store.”

For those who passionately want to see McDonough’s waste-free philosophy take root, that’s a serious limitation. Standing before an audience of designers at the 2003 EnvironDesign 7 conference, he announced, “We’re launching the GreenBlue program today to give away the cradle-to-cradle protocol freely.” That year, Jason Pearson, GreenBlue’s first employee, moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville to serve as the organization’s director of strategy and development and to bring its mission to life. “Bill had conveyed to me that the revenue stream for GreenBlue was guaranteed through a technology development he was involved with that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Pearson, who had been silent about these events until deciding to talk to Fast Company. Two years later, the technology hadn’t “actually materialized into something that was licensable and generating revenue. In the end, there was no guaranteed revenue stream.” And in all that time, says Pearson, McDonough had done nothing to make any of the cradle-to-cradle data publicly available, and “I concluded that we were not moving very quickly toward anything that would make change in the world.” In 2005, Pearson and his staff pleaded with GreenBlue’s board that the nonprofit would be more effective if it “established independence from the founders,” he says. “GreenBlue needed to be able to put its head down and focus on a few clear, realistic objectives. Bill is always interested in the newest big idea. We simply could not afford the unpredictability that resulted from his shifting interests.” Later that year, McDonough stepped down as chairman.

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.”

That controlling, even litigious, im-pulse seems to be a recurring theme for McDonough. In 2006, a Dutch TV station ran a documentary on McDonough and the cradle-to-cradle concept, igniting a reaction similar to the one caused by An Inconvenient Truth in the United States. Ever since, local governments have been promoting the idea throughout the Netherlands; in November, a grassroots group threw the first “Let’s Cradle Congress.” McDonough is reveling in the excitement — except for the fact that now designers in Holland are proudly claiming to practice cradle-to-cradle design. “We’ve sent a few polite letters to people,” admits Ken Alston, MBDC’s CEO, about the unauthorized use of the term. He’s hinting that they haven’t sued anyone — yet.

On the back deck of his bartered Maine manse, McDonough is wrestling with a patio umbrella as if it were a python. In his army green shorts — a jarring departure from his standard bow-tied look — he’s trying to create a little shade. “I think we should take it out,” he says, referring to the long wooden pole set into the glass table. Soon, all I can see are his bare legs from the knees down. He looks like he’s trapped in a teepee.

McDonough desperately needs to break the logjam that has stalled him. Just as the global fixation on sustainability is exploding, McDonough’s design revolution is paralyzed — and he is the paralyzing agent, unable to capitalize on his brilliant, crucial idea, but unwilling to set it free. Last year, Environmental Building News deemed McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle certification a “black box”: “You can see what’s going in and what’s going out, but you’re not privy to exactly what’s going on inside the process,” says Nadav Malin, the trade journal’s editor. In truth, among MBDC’s 160 certifications, virtually the only consumer brands are the U.S. Postal Service and Kiehl’s — the latter of which Brad Pitt helped push through as a charity product for his foundation. Critics argue that McDonough’s work is not transparent or consensus based, and that because he sometimes consults for companies whose products he’s also certifying, the whole endeavor is conflicted, if not unethical. “All the money stays in one place,” says Tim Cole, director of environmental initiatives and product development at Forbo Flooring, and treasurer of the USGBC. The impression that emerges, says Cole, is, ” ‘Hey, if you want your product certified cradle to cradle, just go to McDonough, pay your price, and it will happen.’ I think cradle to cradle will either have to get better or become a thing of the past. You have to evolve with the movement.”

McDonough is trying. His latest strategy involves, once again, opening up the work to the public — this time to develop MBDC’s materials database Wiki-style. Instead of MBDC assessing each chemical itself, it would partner with design firms, companies, and universities around the world. Anyone, anywhere would be able to upload assessments of chemicals — with McDonough the lone gatekeeper for certifying products. At the same time, through VantagePoint, he plans on identifying startups that would make cradle-to-cradle goods that could in theory be sold at scale to one of the firm’s strategic partners, like DuPont. He has a long way to go: VantagePoint tells me that in the four years McDonough has been working at the firm, there are “no examples of that happening” and no products in the pipeline.

Despite the many accolades McDonough has received in the media, he and his ideas are being left behind. 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.

Back on the deck, McDonough is huffing beneath the hunter-green canvas. “I’m sure this has something to do with it,” he pants, trying to lock the umbrella in place. “We need my son to come down and help us figure this out.” The architect tells me his 13-year-old is quite adept at putting things together and taking them apart.

McDonough continues to scare off the very forces that could bring his idea to life. One corporate sustainability chief, who asked not to be named, says that when McDonough pitched his company to consult, the architect said, ” ‘I want to be the Bill Gates of sustainability,’ and [that] he wants to make a royalty off of every green standard and every green product out there.” The company saw the statements as a red flag and decided not to bring him on board. “There are people in organizations who have passed him by today. Bill is not the leading expert he was at one time.” For his part, Aspen’s Schendler says he knows more than 100 sustainability executives and “sometimes when McDonough’s name gets brought up, there’s a groan.” But it is Picard, who worked with McDonough at Interface, who shares the most ominous evidence that McDonough’s moment is receding: “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.”

Sweaty and breathless, McDonough finally flips the umbrella upside down onto the deck. “Snap this until it snaps into that,” he instructs me, pointing to a wooden lever. He is crouching over as if he were inspecting some kind of beached specimen, his hair like a tuft of grass atop a windswept rock. It’s hard not to wonder, even with Al Gore’s Hollywood engine behind him, whether this is really the man to lead the next industrial revolution. Or whether, as McDonough says, rising with a gasp, “there’s an easier way to do this.”


About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton


#FCFestival returns to NYC this September! Get your tickets today!