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July 2008

Cradle to Cradle

While riding the train from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois to attend and report on NeoCon, I began reading Cradle to Cradle. I had heard somewhere along the line that it was a difficult read and assumed it must be a mini chemistry lesson; now, that's something I was happy to put off. But, instead, I was pleasantly surprised by its conversational style and its accessible ideas. Its 186 little polymer pages are packed full of new and renewed concepts, connections, and inspiration. I could have easily read the whole book in the four hours there and four hours back on the train. I give Cradle to Cradle a hardy two thumbs up and recommend everyone read it as a part of your sustainability journey.

Cradle to Cradle bypasses most of the hard cold gloom and doom facts about the degradation to which we've subjected the earth and its living beings. The book starts with a personal and professional introduction of the two authors, William McDonough and Michael Braungart. William has his roots in the profession of architecture and Michael in chemistry. They both shared an interest and passion for moving our world toward more sustainable living. So, when they met and began getting to know each other, their mutual interests and complimentary backgrounds created the beginning of their work together. The book Cradle to Cradle sets down in words their understanding of what is and their vision for what can be.

The subtitle Remaking the Way We Make Things could also be Rethinking the Way We Think Things because although the book focuses on industry and its relationship to environmentalism, it also delves deeper into the thought processes that we've used to create the industrial revolution as we know it. One of the principle concepts is that we design and manufacture things with a linear expectation. Products will be manufactured, used, and discarded as waste. That is a cradle to grave idea designed into almost all of the things we make. This sets the stage for us to use up natural resources and it is completely contrary to the way that nature works. Nature works in a circle. Every living thing in nature has a life span which includes a positive contribution to the greater system of life and then when it is no longer alive, it degrades back into the earth and becomes a biological nutrient. So, why not design things and redesign all things to exist in a circle. If it is a non biological element like a metal, then it would be considered a technical nutrient and could be used over and over again in products that we design and manufacture within this circular nature like framework; as William and Michael say, Cradle to Cradle. In this way, there is no waste in our industrial system just like there is no waste in the natural world. We're not using up finite resources, we continually reuse them in a closed loop system.

That may sound like a good idea but is it too ambitious or maybe even impossible? No, say the authors. They provide plenty of examples of exactly how this can and is being done. One example is the fabric they designed with/for DesignTex, a division of Steelcase. Initially the idea of recycled polyester was considered and then rejected in favor of opening up the design process to the possibility of an upholstery fabric that could be a biological nutrient; safe enough to eat was the design intent. Available now is Climatex, made primarily from wool and ramie. (I'm guessing this is the fabric referenced in the book.)

Technical nutrients are industrial materials that can be put back into the same or higher quality product than they originally came from. The emphasis here is on the fact that true recycling must mean that the material doesn't ever degrade in the process of being recycled. If it does degrade then this is called downcycling and is just delaying the time before the material ends up as waste. Although it is a good thing to extend the service life of materials it doesn't provide a sustainable solution to resource use. William and Michael describe closed loop recycling as upcycling when materials can be used over and over again while maintaining their physical properties. Maintaining an upcycle for materials is sustainable.

A simple example of upcycling is how Henry Ford used the packing crates that Model A trucks were shipped in as floor boards once they reached there destination. Now that's resource multi-use and the kind of old fashioned rethinking that we need more of today. But, taking a closer look at all the products currently in our industrial system brings to light the challenges of simple upcycling. That is why redesign is so important. One example of the broader vision that is offered up in Cradle to Cradle includes a shift in our idea of ownership and responsibility. What if we aren't really buying a product and owning the whole thing till we are then personally responsible for disposing of it and individually responsible for dealing with the guilt that comes right along with the act of tossing it out? What if products are considered products of service and when their service time is over, for whatever reason, then the manufacturer takes the product back so that they can use the technical nutrients again? This requires a new sense of responsibility and new kind of thinking for everyone. But, the net effect is "the customers would receive the services they need for as long as they need them and could upgrade as often as desired; manufacturers would continue to grow and develop while retaining ownership of their materials." Guilt free resource use, sign me up!

It's at this point in a book review that I really have to control myself, I can't go ahead and summarize the whole book even if I want to. So, if you are now intrigued enough to read Cradle to Cradle I'll just add that you'll be happy you did. You'll learn more about how we are currently focusing too much on doing less bad. But, that it's ok to do what we can as long as we continue our broader mission of working toward truly sustainable living. And you'll see how actually doing good is an option. You'll enjoy experiencing the references to a cherry tree that weave through the book, the abundance of specific examples, and the clarity of vision. The positive message and can do attitude of the book were a welcome lift to my eco-spirit. I tend to have an up and down cycle of my own as I deal on a daily basis in the environmental and sustainable design movements. Encouragement is always a welcome experience to help sustain us.

As William and Michael put it, we need "a radically different approach to designing and producing the objects we use and enjoy, an emerging movement we see as the next industrial revolution. This revolution is founded on nature's surprisingly effective design principles, on human creativity and prosperity, and on respect, fair play, and goodwill. It has the power to transform both industry and environmentalism as we know them." Cradle to Cradle helps illuminate the path on our sustainability journey toward a radically different way of thinking things and making things.

by: Sue Norman