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Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things April 18, 2010

Posted by Mansi Thakkar in Uncategorized.

Reading William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book, Cradle to Cradle, will leave you either morbid or hopeful.  Morbid because of the world we’re currently living in and are in fact quite comfortable with.  The truth, as McDonough and Braungart point out, is far from it.  We are breathing toxic chemicals all around us – even when we’re just sleeping – and the fact is that we’re not even aware of it.  From the fabric of our chair to the materials in our computer – they all contain various degrees of toxic gases, toxic metals, acids, plastics, chlorinated and brominated substances, and other additives.  The situation is so grave that our generation is giving birth to pre-polluted babies.  A morbid thought indeed!

The good news however is that McDonough and Braungart have a solution to these very issues and that is what forms the crux of Cradle to Cradle.  With backgrounds in architecture and chemistry respectively, the authors explain how we can design spaces, industries, and power plants without them being as ecologically harmful as they currently are and also how detergents, paper, shampoo, and soap can retain their functionality while improving their environmental impact.  And they do this by promoting the notions of working in harmony with the environment (instead of against it); diversity (instead of mass customization); eco-effectiveness (instead of eco-efficiency); form follows evolution (instead of form follows function); and triple top line (instead of triple bottom line).

The ideas presented in the book are simple yet compelling.  McDonough and Braungart advocate that all other living systems on Earth work in collaboration with each other and are interdependent on each other – ants for example, don’t only grow and harvest their own food and handle their own wastes, but they also deal with the wastes of other species in the eco-system, create medicinal value, and nurture and replenish the soil for all other species.  However, even though we are the most intelligent species on Earth, we do not understand this intricate balance and interdependence between us, other species of plants and animals, and nature.  We work against them and disrupt the very species that can sustain us.  We need to be more humble about our powers and integrate ourselves into the eco-system instead of fighting it.

The authors also strongly advocate a culture of diversity.  Indeed mass-customization and ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions are boring and neither effective not efficient.  The environment in tropics is quite different from that in the temperate regions and it rightfully requires different building concepts.  In the same vein, the authors promote designing products with an intention of upcycling them instead of downcycling them.  What this means is that when a product reaches its end of life, the individual parts that make up the product should be reusable upstream of its current use.  The existing practice of downcycling, or recycling, that reduces the original qualities of materials causes more harm than good.  Upcycling is not limited to products and can also apply to production lines.  For example, McDonough and Braungart worked with a company to re-design the composition of their shower gel.  While the new shower gel cost more than original shower gels, the company saw great savings in the production process.  This was because the water coming out of the factory was more clean than the water going into the factory and this saved them all their treatment and safety costs.

The book is peppered with several such examples.  In each example, the solution offered is more profitable than existing methods.  The authors do an excellent job to drive home the point that we do not have to go back to our nomadic existence to work in harmony with nature; that technology and evolution can coexist with our environment and in fact improve our environment instead of harming it.  The way to reach there requires an ‘Industrial Re-evolution’.

In conclusion, Cradle to Cradle is a must read for all of us.  It makes you aware of the harmful environment you’re living in and promoting.  It helps you understand what can be done and what needs to be done.  The only thing that surprises me is that the ideas of this book and books such as Biomimicry haven’t yet gained as much popularity as they should.  These concepts are important for us to progress ahead responsibly and it is time that they are promoted and adapted across all industries.


1. Sara Beckman - April 18, 2010

How does Cradle to Cradle compare with some of the other approaches to achieving sustainable design? What is keeping us from adopting the methods put forth in this book and others? How can they be presented or packaged differently to make them potentially more accessible?

Mansi Thakkar - April 25, 2010

Sara – Cradle to Cradle takes a holistic view to sustainable design. It does not limit to individual systems but looks at the impact of a product on the entire ecosystem. This was the most striking feature of the book for me.

Methods such as LCA analyses look at the impact of a product over its life cycle and are useful for comparing between products. However, Cradle to Cradle looks at redesigning from scratch – not just picking the best alternative amongst all options because that is not good enough.

I think there are two reasons why these and other methods are not being adopted:
(a) Unlearning – As humans we believe that our progress will come at the cost of nature – that if we have to consider the social and environmental impact we will be taking two steps behind instead of a step ahead. We also believe that recycling, reducing, and reusing are good enough to call us environmentally conscious. What we need instead is to unlearn our ‘bad habits’ and have an industrial re-revolution based on the principles of Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry, and other sustainable design principles.
(b) Awareness – The methods put forth in this book and others are being adopted slower than they should be because of a lack of awareness. These principles need more publicity – not just at the Heads of State level but at the corporate and individual level. Making parents aware that their babies are coming into the World pre-polluted will encourage them to fight for change. Similarly, at the corporate level, most organizations are concerned about their environmental impact and are willing to work towards improving it. Once organizations learn that this can be done and how it should be done, we should be able to see more change. The key however is to reach out to these corporations. This can be done through publicity, trade shows, and perhaps even the government.

Bryan Trinh - April 25, 2010

Mansi, I think one of the key points that you hit on was, we can be sustainable but retain all the capitalistic mechanisms that drive our nation. So, I’ll add another one to your list of “not being adopted”

(c) Money – In our industrialized and highly mechanized society there is a severe lack of awareness for the ecosystem level solution. All too often we create patches to solutions that were ill thought out to begin with. A cycle starts where we patch the patch, and patch that up too. Corporations need to be aware that by starting over and thinking of the whole system, they can potentially reach a solution that is ultimately more economical in the long run.

I just finished watching Food Inc. and there are a whole hosts of examples of this. Check it out when you have time =).

2. Mansi Thakkar - April 26, 2010

Bryan, I completely agree! In fact most organizations today approach a problem with ‘Is this opportunity profitable for me? How much will it benefit me economically?’ and the authors make a important point that instead if you approach a problem with ‘Will this create a new habitat or improve the environment instead of harming it?’ then we can get significantly different solutions that are more profitable as well in the long run. So yes, Money is an important driver for us being the way we are.

I suppose all of these points just indicate to a change in behavior from our end. It is important for us to change our mindset and BELIEVE that things can be different than they are currently. Perhaps we’ve all become a bit too cynical, not believing that environment and humans can co-exist and all it needs in a change in our attitude.

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