Green Guru William McDonough Must Change, Demand His Biggest Fans

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


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

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.

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