UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

William McDonough – Commerce, Good Growth, and The Triple Top Line

September 26, 2011 By Joel Thomas

By Adam Hart, MBA 2012Bill McDonough portrait2 cropped

William McDonough uses rhetorical questions to devastating effect.  The celebrated designer, thinker, and author of both The Hannover Principles and Cradle to Cradle delivered a lecture sponsored by Cherokee Gives Back to an enthusiastic audience at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School last April. 

His lecture was perfectly targeted to business leaders and aspiring executives, as they are the ones that will decide for companies what products and services are “the right thing” and worth pursuing.  McDonough sees commerce as the engine of mankind’s dominance of the planet, and as such believes it will be commerce that creates, innovates and (hopefully) redesigns the system in which people consume.

To that end, McDonough has been a designer and adviser for organizations as diverse as Google, Nike, and the Government of China.  In addition to designing greener headquarters and production facilities, his advocacy and advice has led companies such as Proctor and Gamble and Walmart to announce stretch targets to power all their facilities with renewable energy.

McDonough’s perspective as a designer raises interesting questions for the business minded:  did our system of commerce arise with thought to its design?  And if so, is it a system we can live with, or more importantly one that we want to perpetuate?  What could we do to foster a better system?

McDonough asked the audience to start from scratch, imagining whether we would intentionally create a system which: 

-          Puts billions of pounds of hazardous materials into the soil, air and water every year?

-          Ignores billions of clean kilowatt hours and Btu’s from the sky every day?

-          Sees human population as a “problem” rather that as an opportunity to serve creative children?

-          Measures productivity by how few people are engaged? 

-          Measures progress by how efficiently “less bad” we can be with undefined goals other than zero?

-          Measures prosperity by exploiting nature’s diverse abundance and leaving uniformity and ecological liabilities behind?

-          Requires thousands of complex regulations to keep from destroying people’s health or the “commons” too quickly?

Of course we wouldn’t!  Everything should be a resource for something else, and nothing should be designed into a product to later be thrown “away,” because as McDonough exclaims, “there is no longer such a thing as away!” 

As McDonough states, “Our real goal is to break the box and invent new stuff, so that we can get on with an effective agenda, not just efficiently doing the wrong thing.” The goal, as McDonough stated, is “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power, economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”   

The only question remaining is:  why shouldn’t that be the goal of commerce?  Business executives stand to gain by seizing upon McDonough’s ideas, and deciding that they can grow both profitably, socially, and environmentally.  Wouldn’t that be something?