Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (New York: North Point Press, 2002. 208 pp)
Known best for his work in sustainable architecture and design, William McDonough is a world leader in sustainable business practices. Winner of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the National Design Award, and the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, McDonough’s philosophies on sustainability find popularity amongst companies desiring to go green. Additionally, McDonough is the founder of William McDonough + Partners, an international architecture firm, and co-founder with this book’s co-author of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).
Michal Braungart is a German chemist who, in addition to co-founding MBDC, founded EPEA International Umweltforschung GmbH. Braungart holds the Cradle-to-Cradle chair at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and is employed as a professor of process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderberg. In partnership with William McDonough, Braungart is best known for the engineering philosophies presented in Cradle to Cradle.
Sadly, environmentalism seemingly exists only in the far reaches of the liberal spectrum. As an increasingly volatile political debate, these ideas are a source of contention for countries, counties, cities, and families.
Some might say, “Al Gore thinks the world is going to end? I disagree with him politically so he must be wrong.” Others contend, “Why do conservatives fight science? We are empirically ruining our world and they just dismiss these arguments as if they are merely political rhetoric?”
Taking extreme positions on either side of the political aisle carries certain financial incentives. The more thrilling the premise of your book, the more likely it will receive media attention and higher book sales.
While William McDonough and Michael Braungart might personally hold an extreme environmental position, the premise of Cradle to Cradle suggests a rethinking of business practice. Without heavily relying on the doom-and-gloom game that many environmentalists maintain, these authors advocate for remaking business manufacturing.
Currently, companies manage a product from supply chain to the retail floor. Under such practices, the company cares little about the danger a product might exhibit at the end of its life. Therefore, waste overflows landfills with decaying products that emit toxic chemicals as garbage is either incinerated or left to rot in the open air.
Almost as bad, the potent mixing of biological and technical nutrients in most products makes recycling nearly as hazardous as throwing objects away. Under extreme amounts of energy, recycled products become capable of reuse. Sadly, recycled products never contain the same amount of quality as a new product.
Waste Equals Food
What if products were manufactured with an end in mind? Observing the patterns of nature, McDonough and Braungart assert that business must manufacture products in a similar way.
As it stands, business produces goods under the old manufacturing forms concocted during the industrial revolution. Labeled “cradle-to-grave” manufacturing, this form considers the earth an endless resource worth exploiting. Logically, however, such thoughts are invalid as it is not only entirely possible but also documented that humanity contains the means by which they can outstrip resources.
Mimicking the environment, the authors make a case for “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing. In nature, a fallen tree becomes the source of nutrients for new foliage. In other words, nature’s waste equals nature’s food. If business operated with the understanding that waste equals the supply chain for new products, it would close the loop of exploitation we see in the world.
McDonough and Braungart write,
“Ultimately, we want to be designing processes and products that not only return the biological and technical nutrients they use, but [also] pay back with interest the energy they consume” (138).
Interestingly, Cradle to Cradle not only preaches this message chapter by chapter, it acts this message from page to page. The book itself is made from DuraBook technology making the pages highly durable and waterproof.
Let’s Walk on the Moon
On the whole, Cradle to Cradle urges its readers to dream. Just as a 1950s mindset considered walking on the moon an impossibility, business of today thinks that any action contrary to the norm is a fruitless endeavor. The authors believe that sustainable innovation is not only possible, but also profitable. Whether or not you think that environmental degradation is a real problem or an idea concocted by the radical fringe, this book contains pertinent ideas. If you are interested in business, the environment, or sustainability, I highly recommend this book.