Climate change and circular economy take centre stage at Davos (2014)

After leading a design and sustainability workshop at this year’s World Economic Forum, William McDonough reflects on why he is hopeful for sustainable change


by William McDonough


Recognising global warming as “one of the most serious and complex challenges facing humankind,” this year’s WEF meeting devoted 23 sessions to climate change.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim heralded 2014 as a year of climate action and called for a $50bn (£29.9bn) green bond market by 2015. Nike and Coca-Cola made a strong case for increased corporate and government action. Former US vice president Al Gore spoke of a political tipping point and said that within six years, “80% of the world’s population will live in regions where photovoltaics will be equal to or less than the price of the grid.”

Secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and the UN’s top climate official Christiana Figueres praised WEF’s climate change focus, welcoming a renewed sense of momentum in advance of September’s UN Climate Summit in New York and talks in Lima, Peru, leading toward hopes for a new global pact in 2015. “Undeniably,” wrote Figueres, “climate change is now right back up there among the top concerns of business and political leaders.”

While multilateral organisations, NGOs and governments are working towards large scale, coherent programmes, treaties and laws, it is clearly time for commerce to rise to the occasion. It is time to wage peace with the climate using commerce as the engine of the change.


The circular economy takes centre stage

WEF (World Economic Forum) and Ellen MacArthur Foundation offer hope for deep systemic change with Project Mainstream, an action plan for scaling up the circular economy. The first Project Mainstream report estimates that the transition to a circular economy would provide $1tn in annual savings by 2025 and create 100,000 new jobs within five years. Crucially, the circular economy provides an alternative to resource scarcity.

We know it works. Cradle to Cradle, which I co-developed, is a combination of design and science and one of the sources of the circular economy model. By design, its two distinct material flows are safe and regenerative: biological materials are designed to be returned to nature, technical materials are designed for perpetual cycles of use by industry. Powered by renewable energy, fed by regenerative material flows, the circular economy is designed to decouple economic growth from resource consumption.

Many companies have profitably engaged in the Cradle to Cradle certified programme. One of the things the programme does well is help companies extend their values and material health goals throughout their supply chains, which is crucial for making a successful transition to the circular economy. By targeting signature material stocks and ambitiously cultivating a multi-stakeholder community of circular economy champions, the WEF and Ellen MacArthur Foundation appear poised to become influential catalysts of positive global change.


Collaboration wins the day

I had the privilege of running a workshop for WEF on the subject of design and sustainability. The session was an opportunity for senior leaders to identify initiatives for beneficial economic growth driven not simply by being “less bad” but by striving to do more good.

There were 90 global leaders at nine subject tables led by sustainability and business superstars. Morten Albaek of Vestas on energy; Doug Baker of Ecolab on water; Tom Buechner of AkzoNobel on the built environment; Steve Howard of IKEA on energy; Hannah Jones of Nike on materials; Mindy Lubber of Ceres on finance and communications; Jeremy Oppenheim formerly of McKinsey & Company on the circular economy; Saundra Pelletier of WomanCare Global on fair society; and Jeff Seabright of Coca-Cola on the circular economy.

The circular economy taps into a collective genius for world-changing commerce; companies allied by shared principles are competing, in the very best sense of the word, to do more good. In late Latin compete is competere, “to strive in common” or “strive together,” which describes the ideal spirit of athletes training with one another to excel in the Olympics. Nike’s Hannah Jones says the sustainability challenge “pushes us to innovate in a world where there is no finish line.” And so we strive together for continuous improvement.

My session at Davos was closed by Al Gore, who reminded us that sustainability is the abiding challenge of our time. We can dedicate ourselves to waging peace, in our time, for all time.

Coming down the magic mountain from Davos, I was reminded that striving together, everybody wins. Being surrounded by pioneers reminded me too of a Mahatma Gandhi remark that has always stuck with me: “First they ignore you, then the ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

Our Cradle to Cradle work has allowed us to articulate ways to achieve endless resourcefulness where everything is food: food for life, food for technology, food for thoughts. Of course, it’s going to take us all. It’s going to take forever. Jones is right: There is no finish line … indeed.



William McDonough is an adviser, designer, thought leader and co-author of books including Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. Follow William McDonough on Twitter.

©2014 William McDonough
Published in The Guardian, February 21, 2014