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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.