GreenBiz | The McDonough Conversations

The McDonough Conversations: Sustainable business and the value of values

In an economy where many companies are numbers driven, “the concept that a business could be values-based and then produce business value is really crucial,” says to William McDonough.  In the latest installment of The McDonough Conversations, “Sustainable business and the value of values,” McDonough discusses how value relates to sustainability.  Below is an excerpt from the interview with Joel Makower of GreenBiz. The full interview is available on

Joel Makower: So you’re saying that value begins with values, which go beyond numbers.

William McDonough: Modern economics are so focused on numbers that the notion that a business could be values-based and then produce business value is really crucial at this point. You and I have the privilege of dealing with companies that are well-meaning in their activities regarding the environment and social fairness. But generally, it’s all about numbers.

It’s been famously said that scientists and engineers know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. And architects and artists know less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything. We’re all somewhere in between.

Joel Makower: Can you give me an example of how well-meaning companies get it wrong?

William McDonough: We see certification systems in healthy materials that are just a few superficial statistical numbers that somebody is self-reporting, and that get characterized as being a real review of a material or a product without context when actually their values represented need to be questioned.

You will see a statement that says, “This is safe for you and the environment.” Then it tells you that it has components that can cause development problems in your children, reproductive problems in our mothers and endocrine disrupters of hormone systems.

But it told you it’s safe for you and the environment. There’s not even truth in data there, not to mention the fact that you have to question the values of the people who would continue to sell a product and talk about it in this way. It’s really amazing to me that they would create value for their business while promulgating and selling with a smile on their face.