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Cradle to Cradle – William McDonough and Michael Braungart May 7, 2012

Posted by sunderraj3 in Design Thinking, Uncategorized.
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“Our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.” -William  Mc Donough,  TED 2005 conference

“We do not want sustainability, because that is not enough. We want real quality.” – Michael Braungart

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough, an architect and Michael Braungart, a chemist is a seemingly utopian concept that challenges our current design principles and the ‘cradle to grave’ manufacturing models. The book is not just a commentary or an outcry on our present day design deficiencies and manufacturing externalities. It goes beyond that by laying out new remedial design principles, guidelines and even a case study to show that is more rooted in reality than it is in its utopian ideologies.

The physical book design in itself quite novel. Rather than using paper from wood pulp or cotton fiber, it uses synthetic paper made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers. Apart from being waterproof, durable and recyclable, it also serves as a “technical nutrient”: one which can be broken down and circulated indefinitely in industrial cycles. This is the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ concept in action, where design enables an alternate upcycle-able material thus relieving precious trees from performing a diminutive role as a raw material for paper.

The book starts off with a critique of the current design and manufacturing guidelines that have their underpinnings in the Industrial Revolution. According to the authors, the economic revolution driven by the desire for acquisition of capital lead to the ‘Cradle to Grave’ concept and more emphasis on efficiency. They conclude that except a few generally known positive side effects, most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive.

In a world in which we accept waste as the norm and less waste as an improvement, manufacture products that have been designed for the worst case scenario, use chemical and energy brute force to produce them and measure quality of living by high economic standards, the ones that go unaccounted for are the ecological health and in many ways human health as well. The authors see this as a design problem where we have unquestioningly accepted  flawed design principles that were by-products of the Industrial Revolution and call for a ‘Industrial Re-revolution’: The ‘Cradle to Cradle’, C2C design methodology.

I could see three underlying principles that drive the C2C methodology:

  • Eco-Effectiveness vs Eco-Efficiency: While eco-efficiency aims at improving existing industrial systems so that they can produce less waste and pollutants, eco-effectiveness aims at a new industrial system that does not generate pollutants or deplete natural resources. A good example would be replacing coal plants with wind mills or solar panels. The idea that materials should be ‘upcycled’ not just recycled is also one of the tenets of eco-effectiveness.

  • Waste Equals Food: This is a principle borrowed from nature where everything has a purpose and is a nutrient for something else. Similar to the biological nutrients, the ‘technical nutrients’ enable to create closed loops in our man-made world. Thus once a product has been designed, it is ‘upcycled’  to the industry, a number of times throughout its life cycle and then safely returned to nature.

  • Respect Diversity: This is C2C’s response to the current ‘one size fit all’ design principle. This principle necessitates respect not only for biodiversity but also  for geography, culture and the uniquely human element. Or more simply, its design that is adapted to local conditions using its unique ecological and cultural diversities.

As a methodology, I think C2C has immense scope for sustainable design. First, it recommends a mindset shift for designers to shed their  loyalty to the ‘Industrial Revolution’ age design principles and adopt a new principled approach for a sustainable future. Some of the suggested approaches are quite feasible and could be implemented with much less investment. One approach is to assess all the materials that are used in a product and categorize them on the levels of harm they pose to humans and the environment. Remove all chemicals that we definitely know are harmful. Another useful approach is to design products that are easy to disassemble and its different parts clearly marked so that they can be recycled effectively. These are elements that I think stretch C2C from a mere framework for sustainable design to an actionable toolkit.

I can also see the merits of the ‘respect for diversity’ principle and the ‘one size fit all’ shackles that designers bind themselves with. In my opinion, this is a more near term design challenge given that the consumption gravity is shifting away from the West towards China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies. With much less notion of environmental awareness, safety and health, these young economies would soon find themselves caught up in a ‘Re-Industrial Revolution’ than a ‘Industrial Re-revolution’, that C2C advocates for. Designers could play a vital role if they could respect the diversity for the cultures and geographies that they design for and come up with more ‘eco-effective’ solutions.

However, I have two main concerns about this framework. First, the ‘Waste equals Food’ principle is one of the vital cogs of the C2C framework and I doubt if this is fungible. Even though exemplified by some examples, the book does not go beyond that to discuss ways to identify those systems. It’s unfair to expect the authors to come up with such a universal design rule too. May be only few materials qualify and a strict adherence to this principle might leave designers with very few options or might prove to be both expensive and time-consuming. With out this principle being validated for various situations, I doubt if it would differ much from other sustainable design principles such as ‘The Designer’s Field Guide to Sustainability’.

Second, the authors make it seem that the mass adoption of sustainable design would fruition if only designers could change their mindset about design. I think corporations and consumers and their respective mindsets towards sustainability also play an equal role if not greater in this regard. The authors did a great job in describing the drive for economic prosperity as the propeller for ‘Industrial revolution’ and the flawed design principles that it gave rise to. But did not address the fact the propeller has not changed even today and corporations do get rewarded more for short-term earnings than for long-term sustainability.  The main reason that corporations cite is the cost associated with revamping the entire organization, including the value chain and C2C’s cost expectation is no exception to this. Even when designers change their mindset to come up with eco-efficient C2C designs and when corporations are willing to introduce such a product to the market, consumers’ unwillingness to either change their behavior or value ecological benefits than economic, could be the killer. The less than  jubilant adoption of electric cars and solar energy without government incentives, despite their superior eco-effectiveness compared to their incumbents,  are good examples of these design issues.

In conclusion, I think C2C is a great framework for designers providing them a new way of thinking about sustainability. However, the C2C methodology is not an elixir for all the woes of an unsustainable future but rather a good nudge for designers and in some ways corporations, to start thinking about ecology in addition to economy and equity.


Lee, Deishin, Bony, Lionel, ‘Cradle to Cradle Design at Herman Miller: Moving Toward Environmental Sustainability’, Harvard Business School Case, May 2007

Stouthuysen, Peter, ‘C2C Theoretical Framework’, C2C Network (http://www.c2cn.eu/sites/default/files/C2C_theor_framework.pdf)

Additional Resources

William McDonough at TED 2005