The Lies and Fraud of My Hero William McDonough

This 20-minute video changed my entire perspective on architecture and the green movement. William McDonough has thrown green architecture into the spotlight for the last two decades. After watching the TED video below, I became it’s most fervent evangelist. I shared the link with everyone I could, ran to the library and checked out his book Cradle to Cradle (printed on polypropylene paper), and devoured it. To this day, every time I see a new building or consider building a house of my own I weigh factors such as environmental impact, energy creation and consumption, efficient use of light, orientation of the home for maximum thermal efficiency, and insulating building materials.

It could safely be said that this man, William McDonough, changed the way I see the world.  You can imagine how crushed I was upon discovering that this video contains numerous lies, most of the future projects mentioned have now failed, and McDonough himself has been a huge stumbling block to the progress of a movement he was instrumental in creating.

Fast Company wrote an exposee on McDonough entitled Green Guru Gone Wrong. I recommend reading the entire article. For your convenience, though, here are some of the highlights:

  • Oberlin College – 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
  • Nike – “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.”
  • Interface Carpet – 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.
  • GreenBlue – 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.”*
  • Billionaires – “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.”
  • SMaRT – 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.
  • Huangbaiyu – 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.”

What’s the summary of the summary? McDonough is an impressive man, but he dreams on a scale much larger than he can deliver. His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high fees licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.

The future lies with green architecture and manifacturing, but it does not lie with William McDonough.

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  • Emerald July 21, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Wow. Thanks again for sharing. It’s great to hear you support the green building movement too! This being my industry, it was sad to read about Bill’s lies and demise. Several months ago, I was working on a couple projects in which we had to achieve “LEED” certification and many of the products I researched used the term “cradle to cradle”. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes in the future. You’re right about one thing, the green building movement will continue without William McDonough.

  • Derek July 23, 2010 at 9:55 am

    On an optimistic note, it seems that all the negative press may have affected McDonough in a positive way – if you look at the GreenBlue website today, you will see that they use the term Cradle to Cradle.

  • Andrew September 18, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    @Derek: Are you sure that they are NOW using the term or have simply not taken the term from their site at all? Note that the website copyright is 2006.

    (Thanks for the info by the way, very interesting.)

  • Scott November 17, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    If the people at Oberlin are so disappointed with their building, then why did they celebrate its 10-year anniversary in October and invite McDonough to be a part of it? It’s on Oberlin’s own website. I don’t get it.

  • Derek November 18, 2010 at 10:15 am

    That’s an interesting question, Scott. Thank you for sharing that link. The first explanations that come to mind are:

    1) The building, functional or not, is good publicity for Oberlin.

    2) Oberlin isn’t as unhappy with the building as Fast Company would have us believe.

    3) Only certain people at Oberlin are unhappy with the building. Everything has its detractors.

  • Rodrigo January 10, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks Derek great and sad post. Looking the bright side we have to focus as a designers and believers on ethicall issues and functional solutions.

  • Alejandro Moreno March 29, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Whether McDonough has been completely transparent, honest, etc I don’t think is in question, as there is too much evidence that seems to indicate that he has not. However, the Fast Company article by Danielle Sacks is in reality a poor example of journalism. Yes, the investigation she supposedly carried out in researching the article seems to be valid at least at face value, and as stated earlier, none of us believes McDonough is a saint. What makes Sacks’ article poor journalistically, is that she obviously had an agenda when writing the article from the get-go. And that agenda was to tear McDonough down and knock him off of his pedestal. If someone wants to knock McDonough down or off of his pedestal, and that someone wants to do it through journalism, then it should be done through investigative, impartial, professional journalism, and not the almost yellow journalism that Sacks used to write her article for Fast Company. I’m surprised that Fast Company actually ran an article like that, unless of course they have an agenda also – that being of discrediting the green movement by trashing one of its supposed heroes and trying to turn him into a zero. Either way, be those claims about McDonough true or not, the article was written with an anti-McDonough agenda, when it should’ve been written with an investigatory agenda instead. And this is not to Ms. Sacks’ credit, because it actually damages the perception of her as an objective journalist. Again, I’m not defending McDonough, I’m just saying that if you’re not an objective journalist, then you’re pretty much just a muckraker.

  • Derek March 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Excellent points, Alejandro. The article does have a clear bias against McDonough. I wonder what Fast Company’s agenda really was. I’ll keep my eyes open for any less-biased pieces I can find and share.

  • samathath October 20, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Not mine, but worth a look: 100backlink Freebee

  • Anon June 17, 2015 at 9:37 am

    I worked with Bill McDonough. A friend of mine once said: he/she that shines a lot, casts a lot of shadow. The person is not perfect, but if a list were to be made of the positive things he has contributed, I think it would for sure outweigh the list of negative things. As for Oberlin, eventually the energy consumption went down dramatically. There was a learning curve in terms of getting to know how to use the building.

    • derek June 17, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      I appreciate the personal story and the light/shadow analogy resonates with me. Thank you for sharing!