A discussion with William McDonough

William McDonough is a globally recognized leader in sustainable design and development and is known as “the father of circularity.” He continuously aims to transform the global apparel supply chain into positive change. As we count down the days to his acceptance of the 2023 Eco-Steward of the Year, we’ve asked McDonough to reflect on his thoughts within the circular carbon economy and how he plans to continue driving progress.

In his words…

You recently returned from this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. What are some of the big takeaways this year?

I have been participating at the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings in Davos for over 20 years which allows me to get fresh perspectives on the flux and shifting nature of the world economy from year to year. Climate change and its attendant disruptions to people and planet were certainly at the top of many agendas. Lately, too, there’s evidence of a deeper appreciation of fundamental issues of source depletions and social fairness with regard to many of our current economic models. Take, for example, the inherent sharing of materials in our circular economy models, sharing the present with the future through converting current natural sources into resources available for human use and continuous reuse in the future. These issues are becoming front and center as essential elements of both public and private concern. It is also evident that many of the policy conversations that have gone on at the WEF, at G20, and at other convenings are evolving regarding environmental benefit, clean energy, food availability, and resilience. They are moving from being discussions about policy to becoming a source of inspiration for business opportunities and purchase orders allowing the economic sector to drive the policies forward more quickly.

Gen Z and millennials are the largest and most prolific consumers right now. What are they doing right as it relates to the circular economy?

Fundamental relationships with people and products are changing. Some of the more important changes are coming from the circular economy based on Cradle to Cradle’s cycles of products of consumption in the regenerative biosphere and products as a service in a circular technosphere. Gen Z and millennials are able to distinguish the difference between nature and technology and the notion that high-speed change is a concern when it drives unnecessary overconsumption in a throw-away world. Consumers are realizing they can’t “consume their clothes,” and are becoming customers - product users who are preferring products as a service and looking for transparency, and healthy materials for reuse or for recycling from companies. They are digitally connected and can exercise choice across many platforms. The marketplace is responding with programs like Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly where consumers and customers can find preferred products that start to align with their values. These types of programs are also allowing other people to become aware that companies selling them products are attempting to address their fundamental concerns simultaneously– cost, carbon footprint, fair labor practices, environmental considerations, material health and intelligence, ocean plastics, and more.

We see gaps in trust between brands, consumers, and media as it relates to ESG initiatives and intentions. How do we bridge these gaps to build trust and drive progress?

There has always been a deep relationship between the notion of values (good, bad, ugly, beautiful, moral, ethical) and the notion of value (less, more, numeric, digital, size, measurable). Both of these notions involve a share of fundamental concern for what is true. If someone says that something is good, is it true? This question is a matter of qualification and depends on our values. But the notion of is it a good? This is asking, is it verifiable? That’s a scientific question. This becomes a matter of quantification and value.

Gaps in trust often are seen where intentions get represented as truth. To bridge the gap, we start with values (truth in meaning), then move to principles, visions, and goal setting – almost without dimension, and then proceed through strategy, tactics and metrics to value (truth in number). Start with your human values and then find the economic value because if you only start with the numerical value you can only get to benchmarks and may miss getting to values.

You have been waging peace through commerce, influencing the world’s political and business leaders to accelerate a circular carbon economy. Where do we stand right now?

We are always at the beginning when searching for constant improvement. For example, the Circular Carbon Economy is based on our model of a circular economy but incorporates carbon as both a material and fuel in our Cradle to Cradle context of a regenerative biosphere and circular technosphere. We can look back in history going all the way back to the earth as a dead rock in space – evolving to a point where solar energy, water and minerals combined to make soil and breathable air. We did have a solar-powered carbon economy. Growth was in a Circular Carbon Economy because carbon became a source of life and we watched life grow. Today, we find ourselves in a very interesting relationship with this exquisite model because we are turning our planet back into a dead rock by burning dead rocks.

According to an article in Nature, the products of human industry and infrastructure now outweigh the dry mass weight of all living things. We are going in reverse. We realize that we can take human industry and try to follow the laws of nature, one of which is taking carbon from the atmosphere to the biosphere and the geosphere. Nature-based solutions, and now hoped-for technology solutions, allow us to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We are simply at the point of this revelation and we “must” move with deliberate speed because…we are only at the beginning.

What musical lyric or quote inspires you on a tough day?

Into the Mystic by Van Morrison

We were born before the wind Also, younger than the sun 'Ere the bonnie boat was won As we sailed into the mystic

Hark now, hear the sailors cry Smell the sea and feel the sky Let your soul and spirit fly Into the mystic

Read his extended bio (and fellow 2023 American Image Awards honoree bios too!). Share our exclusive conversation on social with #AmericanImageAwards:


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