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Bill McDonough Calls on CEOs to Be ‘the Real Chief Sustainability Officers’

William McDonough, one of the earliest advocates of the Circular Economy, has mixed feelings about chief sustainability officers, which are popping up more and more as corporations reconsider their environmental footprint.

“I think it’s great if a company has a chief sustainability officer,’’ McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle on circular design, told the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China on Thursday. “But the chief executive officer is the real chief sustainability officer, because he has to lead it. It can’t be delegated.”

McDonough, an architect, designer and ranked one of Fortune’s 50 Great Leaders, says he will walk away from working with any firm whose CEO is not directly in charge of driving the company’s transformation to sustainability. His firm, McDonough Innovation, has designed and implemented sustainable systems for companies and organizations including Ford Motors, Bosch, Dropbox and NASA. He’s used the circular approach to design products, office buildings and factories. A plant he designed for Ford that uses renewable power saved the automaker amount the equivalent of selling $900 million worth of cars.

“We don’t want to talk about products, such as your mobile phone, in terms of end-of-life. We want to talk about end-of-use. Because that begs the question: what is the next use?” he said.

President Bill Clinton was so impressed with McDonough’s work that he tagged him with the moniker ‘Mr. Sustainability.’ But when people call him that, McDonough said he tells them that he is actually not interested in sustainability.

“The real question is: how do we grow?’’ McDonough said. “The real job is growth. What we want is to make new and beautiful things.”

And he has little time for executives and others who only talk of reducing pollution and waste. “People talk about creating a less bad future,” he said. “Being less bad is not being good. We are looking for a future that is good.”

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