47 pages 1 hour read

William McDonough, Michael Braungart

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2002

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Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is a work of nonfiction by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published in 2002. The book argues that a radical change must be made to the Western world’s industrial and manufacturing systems, which are devastating to the natural world in their present state. Through discussions of environmentalism, industrialism, and design, the authors urge us, as a society, to think differently about what it means to be “eco-friendly.”

William McDonough is an American architect and Michael Braungart is a German chemist. Together, they bring a unique sensibility—at once both scientific and design-oriented—to address the issues facing modern manufacturing. The authors reject the current manufacturing practice of “eco-efficiency,” in favor of their own brand of environmentalism, which they dub “eco-effectiveness.” The authors debunk misinformation surrounding “good” environmental practices, such as recycling, and dispel popular notions about how industry and the environment must interact. Rather than “cradle-to-grave,” the authors believe that manufacturers should embrace a “cradle-to-cradle” life cycle. That is, the life cycle of a product should not end in a “grave,” like a landfill. In a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing model, products are designed and manufactured with new uses already in mind.

Cradle to Cradle is comprised of six chapters. In the Introduction, the authors state their broad intentions: to urge humanity toward a “new Industrial Revolution” (6), in which industrialist and environmentalist goals are one in the same. The Introduction also highlights each of the authors’ professional backgrounds in architecture and in chemistry and mentions the business they founded together called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. Through their business, the authors have a “focused way to begin to put [their] ideas into practice, to turn [their] work in chemical research, architecture, urban design, and industrial product” (15), with the goal of transforming industry itself.

Chapter 1, “A Question of Design,” gives a sweeping overview of the Industrial Revolution in the early 20th century, finding that because it was primarily an economic revolution, the movement had certain devastating and long-lasting effects on the environment. It was during the Industrial Revolution that the “cradle-to-grave” model was borne, where products are created with the assumption that they will eventually be discarded as waste, most likely in a landfill. Other cornerstones of the Industrial Revolution that still linger today include a one-size-fits all approach to design—a “monoculture”—and the idea that brute force is the primary means by which to achieve one’s goals. In Chapter 2, “Why Being ‘Less Bad’ Is No Good,” the authors address the insufficiencies of the modern day “green movement.” So far, the “green” or “eco-efficiency” movement has had its primary objective as making industry and manufacturing less harmful to the environment—which, as the authors point out, does not mean that industry is exactly good for the environment. The authors seek to make all industrial processes actively good for the environment. They see both systems—the environment and industry—as part of an interdependent whole. Chapter 3, “Eco-Effectiveness,” introduces the authors’ idea for a new model, one that will replace “eco-efficiency.” In their view, industry should be modeled after nature, in which all byproducts of industry, from the products they manufacture to the people they employ, should enrich the environment. Trees are a good example of this: everything they produce, every byproduct, is good for the organisms around them. With trees, there is no waste that goes to a landfill. The “eco-effective” model that they propose is that industry should be as beneficial to the environment as a tree.

In Chapter 4, “Waste Equals Food,” the authors explain what a “nutrient flow” is, and also about the two metabolisms (biological and industrial) that govern manufacturing processes. Chapter 5, “Respect Diversity,” shows how the value of diversity upholds their concept of eco-effectiveness. In Chapter 6, “Putting Eco-Effectiveness into Practice,” the authors offer a series of practical suggestions for putting their design and manufacturing strategies into practice, at both individual and corporate levels.

The primary message of Cradle to Cradle is that a radical change is needed in Western society’s approach to both industrialism and environmentalism, and it is explained to the average reader in plain terms. The authors are optimistic in their approach to system upheaval, and they do not feel that it is an unachievable goal, as evidenced by Cradle to Cradle as a physical object. The book itself is manufactured on synthetic paper, which the authors note is completely safe to the environment and cost-efficient for the publishing industry to produce. In this way, the authors show that the radical changes they suggest in the book are not beyond reach.