Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is the first in a series of books written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
Image from https://www.cradletocradle.com/
Uh, I can’t believe this book hadn’t come across my radar sooner, but I’m so glad it has now and it *definitely* falls under required reading for those wishing to educate themselves about our rapidly changing environment and world economies. Best of all, this book leaves you feeling hopeful and charged for action, which for those of you like me inflicted with a complicated, eternal optimism, know is a pretty big deal.
“We see a world of abundance, not limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision. What if humans design products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe that our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?” – Cradle to Cradle
What I love about this book is the way McDonough and Braungart start with building a huge case against the way we currently do business (its pretty depressing, not gonna lie and you probably already knew that) but ultimately don’t malign the act of doing business itself. They state that expressing the human spirit through the creation of "things" and services is a corner stone of what it even means to be alive. (As an artist, I appreciate that line of thought.) We shouldn't be aiming to forever "do less bad" and "be less bad," because ultimately we will be both stifled AND still bad. Instead, they posit, we can shift to "being and doing more good" through a complete redesign of our current system of materials use. (I know that sounds like a simple semantics change, but stay with me here.)
This book provides is a frank look at our current systems with a buoyant hope that we can fix them. And that in fixing them, not only will we have saved the planet, but we will be all the more prosperous for it.
The essential argument laid out is this:
There are two types of “nutrient” cycles (nutrients being the materials feeding a production system): Biological nutrients and Technical nutrients. Biological nutrients break down to feed biological systems – think cotton clothing, paper, food compost, etc. Technical nutrients break down (via recycling) to feed technological systems – think aluminum, lead, copper, computer parts, etc.
Most of our problems stem from poorly designing these two cycles so that materials can’t be fully returned to them at the end of their life. If we designed with reuse as the first design requirement, instead of, at most, an afterthought, we could feasibly design closed systems where all parts could be disassembled, broken down or treated, and returned to their appropriate nutrient cycle. Our health would improve in the biological cycle, for instance with less heavy metals in our food system. Meanwhile new materials wouldn’t constantly have to be sourced, saving both companies and their customers money in the technical cycle. And in all these instances, the earth would benefit tremendously.
Image from https://epea-hamburg.com/cradle-to-cradle/
One way we can currently do that is by halting the mixing of these two nutrients streams. Biological stays with biological and technical with technical. When they are mixed, it’s much harder, if not impossible for them to separated and returned to to their proper streams. Instead they pile up in landfills as toxic waste. If they are mixed, they must be mixed in such a way where their components can be easily separated to keep costs down and efficiency high.
Ultimately, they believe that leading this change will be commerce – the exchanging, buying, and selling of the things and services we create – because it is the only system with the maneuverability and speed to adapt to our current threats. Then, government regulation will follow at its more lumbering pace.
Yes, this transformation won't happen overnight, clearly. But it's important to have the right goals in mind as we create our way into a better future. As McDonough stated, "“If you want to go to Mexico, and you’re driving toward Canada, even if you slow down you’re still going to Canada.”
The Take Away
I could fill twelve pages with the examples given in the book, so before thinking to yourself “this sounds too easy” and coming up with possible exceptions, I really do encourage you to give the book a read/listen ( I listen to most of my books these days so that I can be working in the studio simultaneously.) McDonough and Braungart really have thought it all out and provide numerous examples of how this could work on both the micro materials development and the macro global production scales. For real though, even the physical Cradle to Cradle book they printed was super intelligently designed! – but I'm not going to spoon feed you, so go look it up!
I think we can all get behind of idea of "being more" and not "less." Nature at its best is flourishing and full of growth, and we are our best selves when we are doing the same. No one gets excited by the idea of shrinking down their dreams, goals, and ambitions. So let's redesign the system so that all of our creative output leaves a footprint we can be proud of.
As pie-in-the-sky wishful as this sounds, the best part is that it's not. At its publication, back in 2002, McDonough, Braungart, and their partners had already consulted and designed with big corporations like Herman Miller, Steelcase, Ford, and Nike. Following publication they've created a Cradle to Cradle certification system for companies, have built exceptional architectural features that utilizing their design principles, and through their strategy of solutions instead of blame, continue to consult and convert large corporations and industries to their line of thought. Willam McDonough alone has received the 2017 Fortune Award for Circular Economy Leadership at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the first U.S. EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2003), and the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development in 1996.
I'm gearing up to listen to their second book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. Published in 2013, it follows several case studies implemented after the publication of Cradle to Cradle.
Until then, have you read this book? If you have, what did you think? And for those of you who haven’t, give it a go (it’s fairly short) and let me know what you think. I’m really interested in talking with others about this idea.