‘Triple bottom line’ and ‘sustainable development’ obsolete

Forget the triple bottom line and sustainable development – they merely make companies less bad. It’s the ‘triple top line’ that companies should be striving for, especially as it’s more profitable, says a leading US architect. Car manufacturer Ford, for instance, is US$35 million richer because of its triple top line design of one of its facilities.


According to nature’s laws, growth is good, says designer William McDonough, described by Time as a ‘hero for the planet’, and the only winner of the US’s highest environmental honour, the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development. However, the idea of sustainable development, with companies working with the result of their activities to reduce their effect on the environment, is wrong, he says. Reducing polluting emissions merely makes a company less bad. What firms need to do is consider how they can benefit society and the environment at the outset, and infuse the idea into the company’s entire philosophy.

McDonough has founded two companies, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a product and development firm, and William McDonough and Partners, Architecture and Community Design. His companies have worked with firms such as Nike, Unilever, Gap and Ford.

“Is pollution part of the plan?” he asks. It’s the result of not having a plan and failing to do anything about the problem. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result,” he notes.

Problems occur because we do not feel in kinship with nature. Instead we see ourselves as being stewards or in dominion over the natural world. McDonough asks, “When are we going to feel native?”

Fortunately, the situation is beginning to change. “We are now beginning to appreciate that ecosystems have rights to exist,” he says.

One example of McDonough’s work is that of Ford’s Dearborn plant in Minnesota, US. The company was on the verge of implementing a US$48 million scheme to treat the facility’s wastewater, using traditional technologies. McDonough, however, suggested a US$13 million scheme that would achieve a variety of environmental improvements, including the required water treatment. The first phase of what will be a 20-year project is a 600,000 square foot assembly plant featuring skylights for ‘daylighting’ the factory floor. It will also include the largest planted ‘living roof’ in the world as well as porous paving, providing natural storm water management and restoring natural habitat to the site.

In other facilities, buildings are designed with the future in mind. What happens when the company or institution no longer needs them? Their forward-thinking design means that they can easily be converted into housing.

Another project, currently in preparation, is a hotel in Hawaii, which launders 17,000 towels every day. A new solar-powered laundry will recycle the wastewater, extracting the 95% of washing powder that is unused in the washing process, and preparing it for reuse.

MBDC has also been working with Nike to develop running shoes that have a fully compostable rubber sole and a nylon upper that could be returned to Nike to be recycled.

McDonough was speaking at the seventh annual Greenpeace Business conference.

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