Interview with Michael Braungart
This interview helps us understand why synthetic paper can help the environment and focusses on the question if eco-effiency is an obstacle or catalysator for creatives. It took place as part of my studies for my bachelor-thesis “Plan C:// Conscious Design in Discourse” in 2007.
interview: Lisa Worbis // english translation: Max Pitegoff
Michael Braungart is a chemist, unconventional thinker, and among many other things author of the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”. His professional career began in the ‘80’s with Greenpeace Hamburg, where he was in charge of developing the chemistry department. As the founder and scientific director of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, he advises institutions and manufacturers on questions relating to environmental impact and sustainability. Together with his business partner, the American architect William McDonough, Michael Braungart conceived of an innovative organic design process: their company, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, develops product and manufacturing processes, creatively shaping new approaches, products and life cycles, from manufacturing to recycling.
Mr. Braungart, your book Cradle to Crade is printed on synthetic paper, which is impressive for both is visual and its tactile qualities. At first, the message that synthetic paper helps the environment seems a bit paradoxical. What is the idea behind it?
First of all — our concern is not that our work should be “green design” or “eco,” but that it be good design. You have to remember that the natural life expectancy of a human being was about thirty years before he began to live within civilization. The years we’ve gained in life span are connected to the design of our respective living conditions, and is design in the widest sense — culture, civilization, science, hygiene. If we learn how to organize our nutrition cycles — the technical ones as well as the biological — then we don’t need to apologize every day when we wake up and say “today I am 100% pig and tomorrow my goal is to only be 90% pig.” This enables us to celebrate life, creativity, and design. We must understand that we can learn a lot from nature, because there’s still a steep learning curve.
What exactly can we learn from nature?
My point is that nature does not need to be saved or dispensed with. This is a human projection. To come back to your question regarding synthetic paper, if we look closely at the paper production process, it is primitive to chop down a tree in order to make pulp. Wood has a useful application in furniture making, which also corresponds to the dignity of the material. It’s unfair to destroy a tree just to get a little bit of pulp from one half while burning the other half. That’s stupid. There just aren’t enough trees. On average, an American consumes 400 kilograms of paper per year; if the rest of the world consumed even 200 kilograms of paper per year, there would soon be no more trees. So we had to look for another material. We’ve used synthetic paper because the ink cannot be washed out of the pages: the user can throw the book in the wash and use it again. The paper goes back to being white. Not this disgusting recycled paper which hangs on to whatever ink or boogers get stuck to it.
Was the design and implementation of Cradle to Cradle also a one-to-one process?
Yes. What the book doesn’t have yet is a good process for binding. Currently, the book still uses a very primitive hot-melt binding. That hasn’t been successful. But in the next edition we will improve the binding. Actually, the main reason I wanted to do a book out of synthetic paper was that I just really like to read in the bathtub.
Do you see yourself as a chemist or as a designer?
I am a conceptual designer and molecular designer. There is a lot of room in between for other designers. Of course, I must design the molecule from the outset so that it is technologically and biologically useful, rather than just being less harmful. It’s not about saying “I have to minimize my ecological footprint.” Instead, it’s about saying “I want to have a big footprint, so that others are pleased that I’m here!” That’s my idea.
How much interest in your work comes from the design scene?
Designers in the U.S. are at the bottom of the food chain. Marketing comes along and tells them “so, the customers want more curlicues.” This is crazy. The most important thing is respect for creative achievement, and that simply isn’t there in the United States. So design there is incredibly ugly. That’s one reason why we designed the Mirra chair with the designers Studio 7.5 in Berlin, for example. The chair is made so that I can use any component at least 200 times. I can melt the plastic and use it again. I have every pigment, every UV stabilizer, each specially selected. What took the longest time were the armrests, to get that additional greasy feeling that Americans always want to have, totally disgusting. But the Americans like it. Replacing the PVC on the handle was the biggest challenge. The chair can disassemble in two minutes, it was developed to be technically nutritious.
Technically nutritious means that it can return to the technical nutrient cycle, right?
Yes. Everything is useful, whether technologically or biologically. That means that from the beginning, I’m asking: is the product damaged? Will it change biologically, chemically, physically? Europeans combine fine design and good engineering, resulting in products that are healthy, and also beneficial to the environment. This assumes that the designer is not understood to be a ‘beautifier’ in the end, but actually also as someone who takes pleasure in designing processes and organizing supply chains.
Does this happen on the part of the designer?
Sure, but many designers still think about their work from a perspective of beauty. Actually, we need people to say, “hey, I want to be surrounded by things that are not designed to bully people, but to support people’s creativity.” With design, one often asks what it is that people need, but the real question is: how do designers understand themselves?
Is this claim of eco-efficiency still perceived as an obstacle to designers’ creativity?
Most have a guility conscience and say, “well, I’m a pig, but now I’ll just try to be a little less of a pig.” Then there’s the pressure of marketing a product well. Many think that if a product is environmentally friendly, it should be somehow functional and ugly in order to sell. Here at the Hamburg Environmental Institute, we’ve already tested a number of products in terms of communication design, communicating eco-friendliness. The question we’re asking is how can we design the communication to sell a good product? We put Weleda body lotion in such absolutely ugly eco-packaging, then pack it in a store shelf and observe who buys it.
Yes. All of a sudden the image changes. People say: “we buy the eco-packaged product because of the environment.” The joke is that normal people don’t think abstractly. For 95% of people, happiness is defined by comparison. There may be a few Indian gurus who can say, “I’m happy, I don’t care about anything else.” But any normal person always defines happiness by comparison. If two products have the same price, 95% of people buy the eco-packaged product. And that’s crazy. The other package is practically only a placeholder, but necessary, since people need comparison. This simply reflects the mindset of the Media Markt generation that says, “I’m not stupid, I don’t need such a slutty package, I know the actual contents.” There are some people who need the eco-label to confirm their identity. But this is only a small segment of the population, most ordinary people don’t do this. For me, it’s all about comprehensive product quality.
You teamed up with Nike to design an athletic shoe with a recyclable soul. How did this project come about?
Nike was sued in 1994 because its factories in Vietnam were poisoning the residents in the surrounding areas. There were miscarriages and so on, really terrible conditions. I was there, I saw it, and I’m still shocked. The person responsible for this had a consultation with me and asked, “what can we do?” The environmentalists said, “you need to build a sewage treatment plant and use an air filter.” The human rights activists said, “your workers need respiratory protection.” I said, “no, you just have to use the right materials.” During the design process, we only used the materials you need in a shoe. The result is the best shoes. I didn’t want to put an eco-label on it, since that would mean to me that something about this was somehow rotten.
Many environmentalists don’t like the fact that you often work with large companies such as Nike.
The funny thing is, we’re good at the balancing act. Greenpeace even supports our work. The environmental movement of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s has contributed significantly to an understanding of people as pests. They were saying: “you are pigs, it would be best if you didn’t exist.” So yes, there are these terms like “zero emission,” “zero waste,” or whatever. I never thought that I was morally a better person that anyone else, even industry people. This helped me get through the Greenpeace era. I think morality is important on a personal level, but not as a social model. It will always end up in an ethics dictatorship.
Is it possible to buy a product for purely moral reasons?
Yes, you can make people buy anything by spreading the feeling of a guilty conscience, but only temporarily. However, this is exactly how creativity is stifled.
You once said that part of your success is due to your high tolerance for frustration. How difficult is it to push through your ideas?
I studied in Konstanz, and at one point was so frustrated that I almost gave up my studies, which I would have done if it wasn’t for the surf school there. For six weeks I had been working on one single substance, and was completely broken by the end. A whole six weeks spent working day and night. I was completely bleary-eyed. Then, I sat down to begin surf school, and within half an hour, I was the happiest man alive. To see how people converged with their surfboards cheered me up again. I want to take people as they are, and envy, maliciousness, and vanity are all part of that. I will not re-educate people. I have learned from chemistry that certain things really need to be thought through. I consider every person as perpetrator and victim alike. And if you look around with this mindset, you notice that people are really just poor little pipsqueaks. If you meet someone who you’ve avoided for twenty years, who you’ve reduced and minimized, you are actually the one who is worse off. I need a little compassion. I think it’s just important to be happy that people are what they are, and not to dismiss it. The environment is not a moral issue. The fact that one always forgets morality when something goes badly is overlooked. People always forget their morals when they’re in a crisis.
Are we currently in a crisis?
The Germans have been stagnant in terms of the environment for fifteen years because they say they can’t afford morality since the reunion. But the designer must have the right to view something from a different perspective. They shouldn’t be afraid. I’ve always enjoyed looking at things from others’ perspectives. It’s not like I have a lease on the truth. What I’m doing are not inventions, but a discovery. If you discover that the earth isn’t flat, you can’t foresee more of it. If they discover that the world population of ants weighs four times heavier than the human population, then I’m really sorry about this whole eco-design tale. There is only good design, a comprehensive concept of beauty. It’s not good if it’s toxic, or if people aren’t making a living. In English a notion of mine has prevailed. Once in a discussion I described my idea of good design as “total beauty design.” I really meant “holistic” instead of “total,” but the British said “no, no, but you said ‘total,’ it reminds us of Germany and the total war!” The British just have a sense of humour.
So what is the role played by the designer when it comes to putting this comprehensive concept of beauty into practice?
I’d like to see the designer start to be a little less moderate, I’d like them to say “I am the designer.” Why do we leave the product concept to businessmen? Businesses are extremely successful when they put design front and center — Herman Miller, for example. They celebrate good design and therefore can create a business that benefits others. It disappoints me when designers don’t demand more autonomy.
Where does this lack of self-confidence come from?
What happened was this: in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, there were a lot of catastrophes, such as the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. I went there to help. It was incredible: half a million people had been seriously injured, and at least 60,000 had died. This led to a lot of “normal” people no longer studying science or engineering. And those who had studied these subjects found themselves with a guilty conscience. You can see this today when you meet someone who says, “sorry, I’m from the BASF.” This generation has simply been socialized to deal with guilt in this way, and in Germany it was particularly bad, because all of this Nazi guilt was being processed alongside everything else. And meanwhile, all of these other people occupied middle management positions in order to not feel guilty about anything. The same is true of designers, who are also mostly pursuing the management of their guilt. To this I say, “look at how a cherry tree works. There are no savings and no sacrifices.” But meanwhile people from the generation after come along and say, “still, I’m not dumb. I won’t use chemicals that will wind up in my breast milk.” This has nothing to do with organic. It’s simply stupid to do something that isn’t good for nature. Currently, however, the existing systems are optimized, and that means that many innovations can’t find their way onto the market, except through good design. This is also true of communication design.
What problems is it a matter of solving?
I have a good example: for Trigema, we produced a t-shirt that we call “compostable.” What a silly comparison! I’m also compostable, but that’s not an accomplishment. We come to the world as compostable. We currently have to advertise on the most primitive level, because communication designers are useless! As for communication design for organic products, we’re still at that Adam and Eve point. It’s currently only done through the management of guilt. So the company Trigema has made a shirt that was specially developed for skin contact, but can’t sell it with this argument. This Trigema shirt is certainly a better product, because it’s made of materials that are suited to come into contact with skin. Other t-shirts are only made if they can be done cheaply and look nice. Existing companies are manufacturing up to 95% hazardous waste, yet how do I make a new product without people saying, “it’s different than we’re used to, it must be much more complicated.” Do you understand? There lies the problem. For this we need very good communication design.
It sounds like a cry for help.
Communication is crucial. We can’t be ideal. The book Cradle to Cradle contains only 20% of what it should actually have. I can say, “dear customer, the more you buy, the greater progress we make, you are my friend.” I can’t say, “quit purchasing, this protects the environment even more!” This is a very important issue for existing industries. A company like Mattel, for example, has been selling toxic waste to children for fifty years — what are they doing now at year fifty-one? Mattel will only be done away with if it’s replaced by a new toy company. In the United States I won a chemistry prize, which was given to me by Bush. I said to him, “you don’t have to go to Iraq to find chemical weapons. I can just show you a little toy. That is terrorism.” Meanwhile, asthma is by far the most common childhood disease. Over half of our children have allergies. Simply because all of this stuff is never manufactured for children. This gets back to the Trigema shirt — we could say, “this is the first t-shirt made for children.” But then it would ruin the whole Trigema brand. The question is: how can I push existing businesses towards different ways of thinking, while our society is still structured on guilt?
I have a feeling that awareness is changing, at least for some. Obviously people still are running to H&M every two weeks to buy new clothes…
No, that’s great! H&M has nice, stylish things. But the question arises, how do I make sure the company H&M doesn’t just do some eco-cotton project, but that they actually reinvent all their items? Communication design there is crucial. At the moment I’m bewildered by your professional field, because no solutions are coming on the part of the designers, only guilt management. We’re trying anything different: the Americans cannot recycle their Nike shoes, and you know why? Sex.
It’s not that Americans are all shoe fetishists, it’s because of how Americans name raw materials. In German, there are primary raw materials, secondary raw materials. Americans call it “virgin material.” And obviously, I cannot recycle a virgin. Whether male or female. In any case, the Americans can’t use what someone else has used. This attracted our attention, and we recently presented this idea to Nike. For something to be used and to still be great, it must come from a saint. Modern saints are actors and sports stars. So now, when I include in 100,000 pairs of recycled shoes one pair by a modern saint, such as Tom Cruise, then each Scientologist buys a pair, because he is associated with it. For golfers, it could be Tiger Woods. 20,000 molecules of the holy sweat of Tiger Woods in my shoe — I belong to a “holy community.”
By the way, I can tell you about another product that demonstrates how communication design fails. Once again, since I have this forty-year-old family man mentality, I really hate it. So we made this shower gel for CD. A traditional shampoo or shower gel uses about thirty chemicals because it’s the cheapest way to make this gloop. From this, I’ll get dry skin and I’ll have to add a humidifier. From the humidifier I’ll get skin irritation, so I’ll have to pack in a paralytic agent so that I won’t feel anything. That’s complete nonsense, I just want to put good things in my shower gel. Initially, that’s not possible, since that means that every ingredient is six times more expensive. We produced the same product quality with nine substances. In the end the production is much cheaper, because storage is simpler, workers health and safety is improved, and there are less errors. Great, so what goes on the label? “From nine pure substances.” No one knows exactly what that means. How much is nine, is nine a lot? And pure means that they was once contaminated? And the packaging: before it was completely transparent, but no, these stupid eco-types had to choose what was best for the environment, a rotten-milk-colored polypropylene packaging. Who wants to buy something so stuffy? So we wrote in the magazine Brigitte that there are only nine chemicals in this new shower gel rather than thirty. Who cares about that? I still can prevent nine pure “chemicals” being written on the label. Now it’s nine pure “substances.” That’s nonsense. However, the product was successful because it was cheaper to manufacture.
You said once that dematerialization robs people of their culture.
It means ultimately that there’s no one best way. For example, take these labels that I developed for mineral water bottles. The ingredients we used to make them were chosen deliberately. The dematerialization people would say, “but you can print directly onto the bottle, which would save paper.” But we say, “no, we want to have a nice, big label!” But we found ingredients so that if you wash the bottle, you can use the leftover paper sludge to grow shitake mushrooms. The more mud the better. Nature doesn’t work with little, it only works with a lot of dirt, mud, materials. Only then is it creative and productive. It’s about rematerialization, not dematerialization. Dematerialization also leads to soil erosion. Worldwide, at the moment, we lose 5000 times more humus per area than is newly formed. The Americans have lost more than half of their total amount of humus. Because they never give back to the farmers.
How should awareness be raised in the future?
We just need people who are ambitious, and say, “yes, I want change.” We will form a union of designers, which to work will be limited to 2,000 people. They will call their territory and say, “I can make a contribution to this field,” both locally and in a larger context. What will occur is an exchange of ideas. Members have to pay a membership fee so that we can keep up-to-date in order to make Cradle to Cradle design. It’s just about total beauty at full quality. Something that can be incorporated into the design from the start. Its important to ask simple design questions. For example: can I throw away my product later? Or can I burn it without needing a filter? Or will it be recalled by the distributor? When I can’t throw away a product, I can’t make a decision. Product designers must ask themselves: how do I get nutrients back into biochemical cycles? Meanwhile, there is knowledge about materials only to the extent that I can think through them completely, without having to do anything here. It only requires a high level of abstraction.
A final question: are the materials you developed for Rohner Textiles really edible?
Yes, they’re all edible, because if you’re sitting on a sofa you will “eat” parts of it, in a manner of speaking. This material is very successful economically, you can even see it now on view at the Museum of Modern Art. And compared to fabrics of similar quality, this is 20% cheaper because the leftover pieces that are cut don’t have to be expensively disposed of as hazardous waste, but can be used as peat in a nursery. There are other ways. People have to trust that. It’s important to make the customer a partner. It’s not about being superior and to saying, “I’m perfect.” But to convey to the customer, “right now we’re here, and since we want to go further, if you support us, then we can do it.”’