A review of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things was written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and published in 2002. McDonough is a leading figure in the sustainable design movement and the chief (or rather, only) administrator of official “cradle to cradle” (or C2C) product certification. C2C design is one of the most awesome ideas I have heard of, but the track record of practical C2C implementation by McDonough has been spotty and drawn criticism from within the sustainable design community.

The premise of Cradle to Cradle is “eco-effectiveness” rather than “eco-efficiency”. Eco-efficiency, or what is mostly practiced today, is doing more with less. The whole problem with manufacturing today, according to the authors, is that we use all of these horrible chemicals and produce toxic waste that harms us and the environment. Production is a linear, “cradle to grave” process that, despite good intentions, still results ultimately in waste. Recycling practiced today is mostly downcycling, where materials are reused in products of lower quality, because products are not designed to be recycled. Eco-effectiveness, on the other hand, is in its ideal form an endless cycle of materials that mimics nature’s “no waste” nutrient cycles. Only harmless materials should be used if possible; compostable (biological nutrients) and non-compostable or toxic (technical nutrients) materials should be segregated so that a product can be disassembled and the two kinds of materials can be disposed of or reused separately. This kind of material stream generates nourishing waste or no waste at all rather than depleting resources. The authors give real-life examples of buildings and products they have designed using C2C ideology, such as the Ford Motors River Rouge factory. The authors end the book with some guidelines and principles of C2C design.

Their vision may sound like some utopian fantasy (which it may very well be right now), but gears are turning to turn this type of design into reality. Many people support C2C design, but the book and the authors, McDonough in particular, have received criticism throughout the years. The heaviest criticism lies on McDonough’s monopolizing actions that seem to forever hinder the widespread application of C2C (TM) design despite numerous opportunities for the model to gain a strong foothold in major international companies like Nike. McDonough is infamous for clinging onto intellectual property rights rather than relinquishing proprietary control of C2C design and allowing it to spread. Many dislike that McDonough’s C2C consulting company, which certifies products, lacks transparency despite repeated claims to make their data available to the public. McDonough is also accused of overhyping his achievements and masking failures. C2C’s track record is less than stellar despite a large following. Maybe C2C design will flourish if McDonough finally decides to open source C2C, or McDonough may fade into the annals of history as people shift to other similar certification systems or use generic terms to describe what is essential C2C design. However, the idea of a society without waste has already captivated the attention of many, and will probably continue to spread throughout manufacturing.

Sources: McDonough and Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
Danielle Sacks, The Mortal Messiah