Real Leaders

William McDonough ‘The Sustainability Crises of Our Time: A Business Perspective’

William McDonough ranked among the highest in the category of values-aligned impact for the Real Leaders Top 50 Keynote Speakers awards.

His speech at the Global Sustainable Development Congress in May 2023 at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia encourages “waging peace through commerce.” Here’s an excerpt.

By William McDonough

“So what I’ve seen in the last 40, 50 years now is this awareness of change. That is not always positive. And we hear about these certain changes like the Silent Spring announcements in the United States, DDT, or on various kinds of pollution, various kinds of desertification, and so on. And this buildup does not leave room for question — it’s really a climate crisis, as we’ve heard the words. It’s not just change. We’ve now reached the point where change has become a crisis. So I think that idea, and the urgency that it requires … it’s very important. This is a crisis that built up slowly, and there is no better time than the present to make positive change to ensure a future on planet earth for our children of all generations to come. …

When John Kennedy in 1960 said, ‘We are going to the moon,’ the people who did that — and I know because I designed NASA (International) Space Station on Earth — did it in nine years, not a decade. … And the average age of the NASA engineer who put Neil Armstrong on the moon was 28, which means when President Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to the moon,’ they were students. So how important is education and its leadership?

We have seen the business community take this up. It started with the leaders. It started with very senior business leaders, but it then morphed into sustainability becoming a normal statement with not a highly defined set of parameters, except the first one from the (United Nations) Brundtland Commission, which was: Meet the needs of the present generation while allowing future generations to meet their own needs.

But a sustainable, safe, then circular future is about more than just needs. It’s also wants. So we then saw companies setting up chief sustainability officers, and then the whole C-suite. We need leaders, and we need leaders in the academic institutions living it every day, and we need faculty, students who enjoy it and understand this is the future that we decide and make. 

And so we’re at the point now of crisis, and everywhere we see people calling for ESG and getting confused or calling for sustainability without knowing what it means, and we see very strident regulations coming out of Europe even to this day, we see a lot of anxiety, or the concept of offsets and how to report our carbon footprints, and things like that. So it’s an amazing time, and we need clarity and the academic community and the business community to both come together to — I think of it as waging peace through commerce.”

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