Book review: Cradle to Cradle

by Caroline Brown

Title: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
Authors: William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Publisher: North Point Press
Publication Date: 2002

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart have sounded a clarion call for sustainable design.

An architect who was once recognized by Time magazine as a “Hero for the Planet,” McDonough received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development in 1996. Braungart is a German chemist who founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) and was once the director of the chemistry section at Greenpeace. The two are business partners that help their clients design, develop, and implement sustainable products and systems.

Cradle to Cradle is loaded with appalling descriptions of toxic chemicals that make up everyday products such as computers, soda bottles, and baby rattles and the way these chemicals “off-gas” into your environment, leach into your skin, and poison your food. But this isn’t a typical sustainability treatise. McDonough and Braungart studiously avoid asking consumers to make buying sacrifices or lifestyle changes—environmentalism’s kiss of death.

The authors’ call to action is not for consumers. It’s meant instead for industrial decision-makers, architects, product designers, and design engineers, whom McDonough and Braungart challenge to visualize a new paradigm of development in which industrial manufacturing systems are modified to mimic biological systems. Biological processes such as photosynthesis do not have unhealthy byproducts, say the authors, and waste is harmlessly returned to the environment as a nutrient. By re-tooling manufacturing processes so that “waste = food,” the authors propose moving beyond the traditional environmental appeal of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” because even recyclables are wasted resources that eventually crowd our landfills.

McDonough and Braungart envision a world with no waste because products, factories, and buildings have been properly designed to eliminate waste altogether. Everything is produced from “biological nutrients” that can be safely returned to the earth or “technical nutrients” that can be infinitely re-used in the manufacturing process. The authors propose a product leasing model based on such sustainable production practices. In their model, products from appliances to carpet are viewed as services. Instead of being owned, these services are leased to consumers for a specific service period—say, ten years for a refrigerator or 10,000 viewing hours for a television. At the end of the service period, the product is returned to the manufacturer, who uses the technical nutrients to make new products and safely returns the biological nutrients to the earth.

The authors practice what they preach: Cradle to Cradle is not a tree-based book. It’s made from synthetic fibers composed of plastic resins and inorganic fillers and is completely waterproof. I know this is true because I tested it in the bathtub (at great risk, since the book is borrowed). The book is not biodegradable, but it is a technical nutrient that can be infinitely re-used in the manufacturing process.

But it’s in the book’s innovative design that I see the very reasons that McDonough and Braungart’s vision isn’t quite ready for prime time. First of all, because its synthetic materials are much heavier than regular paper, it’s a weighty softback book. And due to its heft, particularly at the spine, it doesn’t stay open and must be read using both hands. And finally, because of the unique design materials, Cradle to Cradle retails for twenty-five dollars—that’s a lot of cash for an average-sized softback.

These criticisms may sound petty. But although most consumers want to make sustainable choices, rarely will they do so at the sacrifice of conenience and cost–the twin pillars of a consumer-oriented society. Sustainably-designed products must meet consumer expectations or they will not be successful. Otherwise, McDonough and Braungart are right on target in their analysis ot the problems in modern manufacturing, and their proposed solutions–illustrated with real-life customer examples–are convincing.

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4 Responses to “Book review: Cradle to Cradle”

  1. What a great review! Loved your insight on their approach and the reality of consumer expectations. Nice personal addition of how you tested it in the tub 🙂

  2. I enjoyed this review and appreciated your reference to “environmentalism’s kiss of death”. It’s true that people get scared away when you tell them that the hardwood floors and the paint in their house in killing them and the planet, and they shouldn’t drive a vehicle anywhere, and everything they eat is contaminated with something.

    I used to subscribe to Organic Style magazine (got it with unused frequent flyer miles) and the editor recognized that most people can’t eat organic, or LIVE organically (is that an oxymoron??) 100% of the time, but we do what we can do and hold on to the belief that little things mean a lot. I appreciated that editor’s sentiment. It took the pressure off somehow.

    But that’s why people like me need people like you–to remind us of what’s going on and what’s wrong, and to constantly challenge our thinking and our daily practices.

  3. Excellent and thought-provoking review. Glad I found your blog!
    Cheers from Canada!

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