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Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle deals with something I think about constantly: waste. McDonough and Braungart do a nice job of laying out what it means to live in a consumerist, unsustainable society, while categorizing the solutions of a cradle-to-cradle system. In this new system, they explore how the consumption and the re-use of materials positively affects the inherent qualities of those materials. In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Jared Diamond’s Collapse, as it references how we’re on the verge of complete destruction of our resources and natural spaces – because we create products that adhere to a “product lifecycle”. Once we are finished with a product or material, it goes into the planet’s largest graveyard of non-decomposing things – the landfill.

Personally, the idea of getting new products C2C certified is certainly appealing, but I’d be curious to know whether Braungart and McDonough are being seriously considered in the worlds of product design, fabrication, and waste management. In a 2008 Vanity Fair article, Phillip Bernstein explained,

When it comes to new ways of shifting our sustainability paradigms, Bill is the granddaddy of this way of thinking. He’s the visionary inventor, there before anyone. And now he’s actually building the factories that make clean water, working on the concept cars that make clean air, doing the big thinking that is moving things forward.

Realistically though, are these ideas changing the way we produce and consume? How many consumers are aware of the amount of destruction that our system requires. Yet, if the industrial revolution had produced a cradle to cradle solution, would we have the same technologies we’ve become accustomed to? If labor and materials have a higher cost, Moore’s law may have never been realized. When you compare McDonough and Braungart to Jared Diamond, they represent two sides of the same environmental coin. While McDonough and Braungart are optimists – believing that we can transform production so that products can be up-cycled instead of down-cycled or simply thrown into the landfill – Diamond believes that we’re already past the point of return, and that the destruction we’ve already caused is irreparable. The main thing that Cradle to Cradle lacks is more concrete examples of success. Ten years after the book was published, are McDonough and Braungart satisfied with the buzz and progress that the book created? I loved the book’s theories, I’m just not sure they know exactly where to go from there.

7 comments to Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

  • Maria Paula

    I didn’t read the examples in the book but, from my experience, I would say people are encouraged to recycle/consume less if there are some kind of financial benefit involved. In Germany, people bring plastic bottles back to the supermarket in exchange for 25 cents each. Brazil recycles more than 95% of cans because poor people collect them to get money.

    What I really don’t like in this matter is rich countries sending their waste to poor countries. It is really easy to use styrofoam dishes daily and discard them anywhere else in the world. Two years ago, Germany sent 22 tons of waste to Brazil illegally. I’m really glad Brazil reacted to it but that is a recurrent problem in many other developing countries.

  • Liz Khoo

    After I read your post I was curious about whether you were right–whether these ideas are taking shape or are they forever on the fringe of industry?

    A quick search of recent news does show that most companies have a few headliner products or efforts around “cradle to cradle design” that show up on mostly “green” or “eco” news blogs, sometimes on mainstream news sources. So, 10 years after this book was published, we’re seeing some progress but it’s a very slow crawl toward change across industries.

    I do think a greater mass of people are voicing a desire for sustainable design, as both consumers and citizens. And at the same time, companies are trying to not over-do their ‘green’ branding, least it undermine their other brand promises. Perhaps there are more cradle to cradle efforts that we just don’t hear about?

  • ehm281

    I agree that the gap between ideas and action in the environmental/sustainability field is a problem. In fact, I would say it is the largest obstacle our society faces in becoming more sustainable. The failure of environmentalists/scientists/activists to communicate effectively with the general public to create a demand for sustainable social change, and with policy makers to support public policies that support that change, has been absolutely crippling to the movement. And because we live in a capitalist society that functions through consumption, technological changes can only be the very basic foundation of an effective sustainability movement; cultural change is far more difficult and far more all-encompassing than scientists and technologists can confront alone. People trained in understanding other people and communicating with them effectively must also be deployed.

    I have worked in the environmental/sustainability field in public outreach, and what I have seen over and over is a public that is uneducated, ambivalent, and even suspicious about the environmental movement. It’s too bad that we have cultural experts at universities all over the country (anthropologists) who spend their lives studying and understanding groups of people – what drives their behaviors, customs, and cultural artifacts. If these people were to apply their skills and knowledge to solving problems like societal ambivalence toward environmental action, we would have a better chance at building a sustainable global society. Hopefully in the future, we will see professionally diverse groups working on this problem.

  • agq202

    Mack, I’m a big fan of the book. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I do think there’s a lot of questions around it’s impact. Is it preaching to the choir? The book, to me, is more of a gospel so that others may pass the message. I don’t believe it is meant to change the public, but it is meant to change the minds of those who are willing to listen, with the hope that they might in turn be able to spread the message and make change. It won’t be the general public, general practices that change first. I believe the book, the examples of from-good-to-bad, and bad-to-good are there to motivate only a fraction of the population. The rest of the change comes from leading the pack, from testing from doing things the right way. The more voices there are the louder the message. The one thing about the book that did leave the most impact, was the fact that it was made from recyclable plastic… good choice

  • It was great to read your blog as it gave me more awareness to the “waste” we create. Maybe that is also what McDonough was going for. Just creating awareness. It always shocks me to see the amount of disposable cups and utensils we use. Like what Maria Paula said, Korea also has a strict law about disposing your waste to make a sustainable environment. They make residents to buy eco friendly garbage bags that belongs to their district and strictly separate food disposal and other recycling waste. Maybe we do need a strict guideline in how we should handle our waste and the way we live to fix this problem. People might complain at first but they all get use to it once the habit is in their system.

  • Nancy

    Just on the topic of waste.. you all might want to take a look at Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. It’ non-fiction but reads like a novel. It takes place in a Mumbai slum and shows how the downturn in the world economy affected those at the lowest level of society: trash collectors in the slums. Fewer tourists, less trash. Also there was an article in the New Yorker a few years ago by Evan Osnos and the woman who made billions by importing US trash, recycling it making it into cardboard and other packing materials and selling it back to US Corporations. I’ll see if I can find a link to that article. It’s called Wastepaper Queen ( If you don’t have a New Yorker subscription and want to read the article, let me know and Ill print it for you. It’s from March 2009.

  • Mack

    Thanks Nancy. It’s interesting that after Nine Dragons took a turn for the worse, America Chung Nam became a global giant in “freight export”, which was probably a similar business model to Nine Dragons, but without recycling huge amounts of waste created in the US.

    In Wasteland, Vik Muniz shows another way of spreading the word about this problem. The film is a documentary about people that live and work in Jardim Gramacho, which was one of the largest landfills in the world, in Rio de Janeiro. It closed down in June 2012, maybe due in some part to Vik’s film. Anywho, I TOALLY RECOMMEND THIS FILM, i’ve seen it like 3 times. Maria Paula have you seen it? Anyone?

    In the film Vik creates massive portraits of the workers, made from materials found in the landfill, then photographs the entire thing, then sells the prints at a sotheby’s auction in London, and donates the money back a foundation/organization created by Tião, the protagonist of the film. The film kept a pretty low profile in US and when I was in Brasil, until I started seeing coke cans everywhere with Tião’s face on it! More than a year after the film came out, Coca Cola wanted to get behind his cause. I guess the irony of Coke sponsoring Tião’s foundation is meant to be seen as a good thing. More than anything, it shows that Vik’s film was successful.