Almost every CEO I know has a hero or a role model. No matter how good we are at building, leading and running our companies, there’s always someone we really look up to; someone who’s daring to think in a radical way; someone who’s showing how we can reach new horizons.
For me, that person is William McDonough, a globally recognized leader in sustainable development. Trained as an architect, McDonough’s interests and influence range widely, and he works at scales from the global to the molecular.
Time magazine recognized McDonough as a “Hero for the Planet,” noting that his “utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that – in demonstrable and practical ways – is changing the design of the world.”
McDonough has written and lectured extensively on design as the first signal of human intention. In 2002, he and the German chemist Michael Braungart co-authored “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” which is widely acknowledged as a seminal text of the sustainability movement. Their new book, “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance,” came out earlier this year.
One of McDonough’s most profound concepts is “Harvest of Value.” The basic notion here is that everything is a resource for something else. Simply put, waste equals food – the waste of one system becomes food for another.
There are a number of companies that embrace “Harvest of Value” around the world today.
Agriculture businesses routinely turn bio-waste into energy that utilities purchase, for example. Cutting-edge interior design firms utilize recycled and composted materials to create bold style statements. And the US Postal Service (USPS) is preventing more than 15,000 metric tons of carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere every year with breakthrough cradle-to-cradle paper products.
MicroGREEN, the company I lead, also embodies this key tenet of McDonough’s.
Unlike conventional drinking cup producers, our highly efficient waste-to-cup technology requires far less raw material to deliver breakthrough high performance cups that can be used for hot beverages and microwave meals like hot cereal and microwave noodle meals. Before our technology, packaging containing recycled PET accommodated cold and refrigerated products; but it was exceedingly difficult to make a sustainable cost-effective plastic cup for steaming coffee.
With InCycle Cups, we have done it, created the first recyclable coffee cup using recycled plastic. It is a true environmental breakthrough, a simple cup with the lowest carbon footprint out there.
I believe InCycle fits with McDonough’s world-view for other reasons, too.
The environmental benefits of using waste to make our cutting-edge cups are significant, and [I think] they’d impress McDonough.
A case in point: When we transform recycled plastic bottles into InCycle, the output from just one of our production lines can reduce carbon emissions by 350 million pounds annually – an amount equivalent to the total CO2 sequestered by 33,000 acres of pine forest. These are emissions avoided by not producing plastic cups from virgin petrochemical sources.
McDonough knows that legacy companies are often balky when it comes to developing new technology. They like to use the same solutions for years in order to fatten profit margins and skinny down the risk.
But a company that’s willing to be disruptive and transformative in the name of sustainability, cost-effectiveness and the harvesting of value is a company that shares the same meaningful core as McDonough.
It wouldn’t hurt other companies to look closely and internalize his globe-altering body of work. The planet – and profits – would both be better off.