Three Green Pioneers on How the Movement Went Mainstream

How did green design go from a fringe concern to a mainstream crusade? Three of the movement’s pioneers discuss this remarkable transformation—and what comes next.

On the occasion of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people participated in demonstrations and other events. The national teach-in, organized by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, represented either the birth of the modern environmental movement or the last gasp of the ’60s—take your pick—but it’s clear that the cultural and political ground had shifted. That year, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and the Clean Air Act signed into law. Later in the decade, a new generation of architects and designers began exploring solar power and other sustainable building practices, fueled in part by a spike in energy prices.

That momentum, however, proved short-lived. By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president and the age of conspicuous consumption had begun. Environmentalists (“tree huggers”) became subjects of ridicule. The green-building movement and its young practitioners got pushed to the margins. “We were alone,” William McDonough recalls. “We just got attacked.” But fundamental change takes time (note to disillusioned Obama supporters). The movement’s major players continued to hammer away at the problem while growing their practices and gaining the kind of credibility that only comes with age and experience. Gradually, their ideas infiltrated the mainstream.

The founding of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993 was a watershed event, because it marked a shift in environmental strategy: LEED would attempt to co-opt the marketplace rather than hector it into submission. And in spite of its many flaws, the program has proved transformational. It also served as a model for corporate engagement (however imperfect). Recently, we talked to three of the green movement’s early pioneers—McDonough, Hunter Lovins, and S. Richard Fedrizzi—and asked them to reflect on the formative years, the perilous present, and the uncertain future.

What Are We Going to Be When We Grow Up?
Hunter Lovins: Thirty years ago, Amory [Lovins] and I were on our way to teach at Dartmouth, driving across the middle of the country, talking about what we were going to be when we grew up. I said, “Let’s create an institute. We need to pull together a group of colleagues for whom this work is similarly their lives’ passion, and look not just at energy or nuclear issues but at all of the interconnections. How energy is connected to agriculture, to water, to economic development, to global security.”

Everything We Touched Was Bad
William McDonough
: It was 1984. I was hired by the Environmental Defense Fund to design their New York headquarters, and we decided to take on materials. I said to the EDF, “Look, our materials need to be safe. We gotta know where everything comes from. We gotta know where it goes.” And we just thought: OK, we’ll make a list of things that are good and things that are bad. No way! It was all bad, all of it. Everything we touched was bad.

Eureka! Moment
S. Richard Fedrizzi
: The defining moment for me came in 1993, when Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce came out. I’d always felt like an outsider. I wanted to play an authentic role in the green-building movement, but as an industrialist/manufacturer/business guy, I thought, I will never be invited to this party, no matter how good a job I do. Hawken put a stake in the ground that said: the most important people at the table are business.

The Three L’s
: The green movement started out as a belief that government was the answer. It focused on legislation, litigation, lobbying. Today I don’t think the answer is in Washington. And it’s not in litigation or legislation or lobbying (although bless those who continue to labor in that). As a movement, we haven’t looked at ourselves and asked: Is what we’re doing working? No, it is not working. But what has succeeded, I think, is working with corporations. Let’s assume the skeptics are right: climate change is a hoax. Frankly, I wouldn’t go to Vegas on those odds. But in the future, if all you care about is being a profit-maximizing capitalist, I submit that you’ll do exactly what you’d do if you were scared to death about climate change. We know how to solve this crisis at a profit. The smart companies are doing it.

A Buy, Not a Sell
: The progress report is extremely positive. If this were Wall Street, green building would be a “buy,” not a “sell.” Cost is no longer the big barrier of why we can’t do this. And we have a generation of young people who grew up really thinking about preserving the planet, saving species, promoting biodiversity. This is the world they’re entering. And they will take it much further, much faster, because they want a society that’s a lot more balanced than the absolutely out-of-control ethic of the previous three decades.

Jolly Green Giant
: If you had told me five years ago that Walmart would be the entity on the planet doing the most to drive sustainability, I’d have offered to bet eating my hat. But here we are. The Walmart sustainability scorecard, which they’re rolling out to an industry consortium, is driving this effort four levels deep in their supply chain. Question number one is, Do you measure your carbon footprint? Question number two: Do you report it to the Carbon Disclosure Project? This is a group of kids out of the U.K., who about ten years ago started sending out to the FT 500—the biggest companies on earth, according to the Financial Times—a survey asking: What’s your carbon footprint? And as you might imagine, for the first six years or so everybody ignored it. Then 60 percent and now something like 90 percent of the companies answer the survey. Why? In part because Walmart hired the kids. In part because if you want to go to the capital marketplace, the kids represent $64 trillion in institutional investor assets. We’re at a tipping point. In the next two to five years, you’ll see sustainable behavior becoming the corporate norm. It is why you have companies on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index outperforming the general marketplace, and they have for ten years. There are now about 20 separate studies showing that companies who are leaders in environmental, social, and good-government policy have 25 percent higher stock value. That number, by the way, is from those wild-eyed environmentalists at Goldman Sachs. Now, why is Walmart going green? They were the most reviled company in the economy. They got run out of Germany. I talked to the guy who closed the German operation. They know exactly what that cost them, and it wasn’t because anybody passed a law. Germans didn’t want to shop there. Trust me: Walmart isn’t going green out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it for solid business reasons.

The Honeypot Strategy
: We got attacked sometimes. But here’s the problem: if we look at what the environmental groups have done, they’ve just wagged their fingers and said, “Stop doing that!” That’s their role. They complain and they enforce. It’s good that we have people who do that. On the other hand, if I want to be effective, I can go in there with a pot of honey instead of a gallon of vinegar and say, “Look, don’t fight it out in public—just fix it. Get rid of the chemical concern, please.” And the only way we can really get them to do it is to be nice. You can fight it out in court, and then they’d never admit to the problem. (Remember tobacco?) They’ll deny. They’ll question the science. The environmentalists will continue to attack them. And what happens? Nothing. We go to these companies and say, “There’s a substance of concern for us. We don’t like it. We don’t think you should be using it. And if you can put together a budget and a schedule and do research, we can then honor you for having eliminated it. You don’t have to assume guilt—that’s for yesterday, that’s for lawyers. We’re designers.”

What Do You Mean? I Have My Plaque
: Right now we’re focused on helping LEED be the start of the journey, not the end. The beautiful Platinum plaque is just the beginning of the process. There will be an ongoing recertification of properties. It would be somewhere in the three-to-five-year time frame. What we would like to have is a continuous performance matrix, which would be provided to the owner once a year. They might get a report card that says, “Your energy is still great, you’re using less water, you’re doing this, you’re doing that.” We’re still struggling with the specifics of it, rolling out pieces of this program right now. We’ve used the term “building-performance partnership” to get people to understand why it’s good for them to give us their ongoing performance data. In the beginning people said, “What do you mean? I have my plaque. Why would I need to give you more information?” It’s all part of the evolution. Eventually, every LEED building will have to do this.

Points for Cancer
WM: For LEED right now, you just need to have x percent recycled content for material points. That’s ridiculous. If the standard is recycled content and all we have out there to recycle is poison, why get rewarded for it? It doesn’t make sense. You get points for putting in cancer.

The 800-pound Gorilla
RF: We have probably 20 or 30 LEED buildings right now in China. A majority of them are the highest levels—Gold or Platinum. We have got about 100 more registered. But these are the largest and most impressive projects, not the small one-offs. Like anything else, the small one-offs are the 800-pound gorilla. We are working closely with the Chinese. Basically, we’ve given the LEED rating away on a silver platter. We said to the central government, “What can we share with you?”

A World of Abundance!
: We need to change how we see the world, from a world of limits to a world of abundance. For years, everything was “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.” Minimize the void. But no one wakes up with a goal of zero. So if someone says, “My goal is zero waste,” is that because their product is dangerous? Why don’t we just celebrate use cycles? What about a celebration of abundance? What if we said: “Change your carpet as much as you want. You want to go from pink to green? Don’t feel guilty. Celebrate. Because if it’s made from safe, healthy materials that are reused at the right time and optimized and powered by renewable energy …”? We want to put materials into continuous life cycles that are coherent. All the world’s resources are limited, but they’re only limited if you’re throwing them away.

Turning It Over to the Young
: The World Affairs Council asked me to give a talk to a group of young scholars. I walked into the room and said, “To the adults in the room, you all can leave, because I’m not talking to you.” Then I turned to the scholars and said, “We’ve fucked up. My generation has fucked it up for you. And it’s not going to be easy. And you’re going to be really angry at us. There is a lot of work to be done. It’s not even clear that we’re going to make it. We’re facing some very serious challenges. There is nothing that says that the human species has to survive. And at the rate we’re going, we won’t. I think that’s wrong. And I apologize for my failure in not having solved this problem before it got turned over to you. But here we are. And it is over to you.” I think that what my generation needs to do is to start listening more to what young people think we ought to be doing, and they need to step up and take leadership.

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