A review of Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Cradle to Cradle:
Remaking the Way We Make Thing
By William McDonough & Michael Braungart
North Point Press (FSG)
2002, ISBN-13: 978-0865475878, 208 pages

For those to are ecologically minded, a key part of creating any new product is to produce a life cycle assessment (LCA), which is also known as a cradle-to-grave analysis, working from manufacture (‘cradle’) to use and disposal (‘grave’). The LCA investigates all of the environmental impacts of that product and attempts to minimise that damage. One of the key premises of McDonough & Brangart’s book, is that minimising damage just isn’t good enough. Instead, the authors propose that we change our entire design processes so that reuse and nourishment are built right into the process. Instead of minimising waste, we create value. Cradle to Cradle
goes beyond the notion of having recycling as the final step in a process flow, and instead builds on the idea that waste need not exist at all. We can design our lives and products around the notion of nourishment – from the way we live to (primarily) how we design and produce goods. The natural world provides the template for what the authors suggest, from the regenerative world of the insect, to the cherry tree, to the use of natural nutrients such as solar and wind power. They suggest that the key to working within, rather than against, nature is to respect biodiversity, respect the elegance and abundance of what is around us, and begin our design process with the notion of there is no such thing as waste:

Industries that respect diversity engage with local material and energy flows, and with local social, cultural, and economic forces, instead of viewing themselves as autonomous entities, unconnected to the culture or landscape around them. (122).

The writing style itself is clear, simple, and suitable for all ages and knowledge levels. Different readers will take different things from the book. It is addressed to those that do design for a living, and for those who are professionals in industry, this book will serve as a manual for development. But all of us are engaged in creation and consumption in one way or another (the machine I’m using to type this on, or the reams of paper my kids draw on to take two general examples) and the choices we make on how we will conduct those activities, and seeing ourselves as all being part of the great cradle to cradle cycle is an important step forward.

The book spends some time discussing the whole notion of dangerous design principles, including the way in which “downcycling” only defers the problem as products become more and more unstable (and environmental problematic) as they are recycled. Although I’ve yet to see plastic books become a trend, the book itself is an example of how a product can be manufactured in a way that will be infinitely valuable. It’s made out of synthetic paper which doesn’t use wood pulp or any dangerous inks or substances, and is both waterproof and pleasurable to read, with nice thick pages and clear ink. The book goes into quite a lot of detail about what it would mean to design products that weren’t less bad, but rather 100% good. The authors look at architecture and how we can design buildings that take into account the diversity of their settings, and the natural needs of their inhabitants.

The book concludes with “Five Steps to Eco-Effectiveness”, a neat summary of how to put the philosophical principles discussed in the book into practice. Some of these, such as “Step 2: Follow informed personal preferences” may seem a little unusual, advocating that we use our aesthetic sense, our observations and our own sense of pleasure (yes, pleasure) to guide our design decisions. While others, such as “Step 4: Reinvent” may seem almost too broad for the average reader. However, the book is full of so many specific examples, primarily from industry, that it’s easy to picture what they are advocating working in practice. After all, the book itself is not only beautifully and safely designed to fit the “cradle-to-cradle” philosophy, it is also written in a way that is easily read, linguistically elegant and appealing, and sound in its advice. As a writer, I can see the sense in taking on this wholistic approach to environmentalism, ditching the hysteria and the mass of finger-pointing practices which look green but which don’t actually make much of a difference, and taking on this approach in a whole body sense. It’s powerful stuff and the impact is starting to happen, perhaps a little too slowly, but, as the authors say, “it’s going to take forever…that’s the point.”

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.