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Living in a Material World

by Richard T. Stuebi

A few months ago, the renowned eco-architect Bill McDonough came to Cleveland to speak to an audience convened by perhaps our area’s most distinguished organization, The Cleveland Clinic.

Upon hearing his talk, I felt guilty that I had never read McDonough’s seminal book (co-authored with Michael Braungart), Cradle to Cradle. So I finally got around to reading it – and what an interesting read it is!

One of the key points of Cradle to Cradle is that it is critically important to adopt an entirely new design philosophy for products and buildings in which all of the intrinsic materials have a valuable post-life use. Put another way, given our planet’s finitude, nothing is really disposal, so the materials that things are made from must ultimately have many uses over many life-cycles.

As McDonough argues, this is a bigger idea than recycling or efficiency – which he calls merely doing “less bad”, not good enough for the long-haul. Rather, McDonough’s proposed approach is more revolutionary, fundamental and profound. It requires a much broader way of thinking during the design process, expanding beyond solely customer considerations in narrow “use” contexts. The supplier needs to become the de facto owner of the thing for not only its service life, but for after as well. In other words, this mindshift compels the designer to ask “what can the thing be used for, after the customer no longer uses it?”

In some ways, materials companies may be uncommonly well-positioned to employ what McDonough terms “eco-effective” design principles. Integrators may actually be “too close” to the customer in order to see, understand or frankly care about the post-customer experience. On the other hand, materials companies are in the business of developing materials with superior functionality. This functionality can not only be characterized by parameters associated with direct product uses, but also by parameters relating to re-usability.

McDonough’s message should have found an interested audience in Cleveland, given our region’s long-held pre-eminence in materials science and development. Many local corporations – such as Ferro (NYSE: FOE), RPM (NYSE: RPM), Sherwin-Williams (NYSE: SHW), Lubrizol (NYSE: LZ) – generate billions of dollars of revenues based on expertise in materials, so companies such as these should acutely recognize the large long-term opportunities afforded by developing “eco-efffctive” materials – and products/buildings based on those materials.

Let’s hope that leaders from these companies were in the audience that evening a few months ago when McDonough came to town. Or, at the very least, that they have since read a copy of Cradle to Cradle.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.