S & S In Review: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart & William McDonough – An Op Ed for Fashion Roundtable

Published in 2002, this design manifesto centres on how we interact with the earth’s natural systems and nature. It calls for a paradigm shift away from a linear economy to one that is circular. The focus on a Cradle to Cradle philosophy in creating systems that promote an endless life cycle and celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity.

Composed by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, it marries Braungart’s expertise in chemistry with McDonough’s architectural prowess. Their excellence and expertise in their respective fields has seen Braungart lead Greenpeace’s chemical division as well as founding the German Environmental Protection Agency. McDonough’s international renowned design consultancy also sees him sit on the World Economic Forum’s Meta Council on Circular Economy.

The piece is the brainchild of Braungart and McDonough who met in 1991, and explores Cradle to Cradle as a key design framework that focuses on creating products and industrial systems in a positive relationship with long term economic growth, ecological health and abundance. The authors propose three key principles; everything is a resource for something else, use clean and renewable energy and celebrate diversity. This scientific and design led approach synthesise to illustrate how the nutrient management and intelligent material pooling can provide enduring benefits for society, water and energy and eliminate the concept of waste and downcycling.

The design of the book itself integrates the cradle to cradle design and emanates the corse argument that products should be created and manufactured to be used, recycled and reused without sacrificing any of its key ‘nutrients’ or aesthetic appeal. The book is made of synthetic paper that is waterproof and durable which can be repurposed after reading. The print uses non-toxic ink on each page which can be removed so the pages can be regenerated, and the glue consists of ingredients that allow the book to be recycled in one single step.

A brief chapter synopsis sees the initial passage ‘A question of design’ provide historical context to the industrial revolution and its systematic waste production that follows the path of Cradle to Grave. Chapter 2 considers ‘Why being less bad is no good’ and scrutinises the limited benefits of reducing and recycling in isolation with examples such as reducing toxic emissions is not as effective as eliminating them entirely. While Chapter 3 focuses on reimagining design for the future, Chapter 4 indicates the authors’ belief that ‘Waste equals food’ and unravels how waste is a vital nutrient for production. The following chapter incorporates John Elkington’s triple bottom line perspective to highlight the increased consideration of not only economic but social and environmental factors when making crucial business decisions in C suites and board rooms. The concluding section investigates how eco-effectiveness can be implemented in reality. It uses the case study of the McDonough’s redesign of the Ford Motor Company plant, a $2 billion undertaking, which transformed the headquarters into sustainable, green automobile factory.  

There are many salient takeaways from the book and the prose is wholly accessible for those less acquainted with the industries of chemical science and design. Throughout the passages, the need to see waste as an inherent design flaw and that everything is a resource for something else is valuable. This puts forward McDonough’s and Braungart’s concept of nutrient management which looks to intelligent material pooling whereby everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients. Alternatively, if it is manmade it can be re-utilised as high-quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.

Of all chapters, the guiding principle of Cradle to Cradle that prioritises eco-effectiveness as a positive development to eco-efficiency is one that resonates with me. Eco-efficiency focuses on the assumption of one-way linear flows of materials that seeks only to minimise volume or toxicity. This follows the cradle to grave trajectory of dematerialisation which focusses heavily on downcycling and limits the recuperation of the nutrients of materials which gives most designs only a finite period of utility.

In contrast, eco-effectiveness values design with upcycling in mind, to transform products and proposes a synergistic positive recoupling between ecological and economic systems. This would support relationships for future cyclical growth to maintain and upgrade resources.

The denouncing of zero waste within the book is perhaps an unfamiliar narrative to many as we have been led to believe zero waste is crucial to fight the war on pollution, emissions, plastics. However, this reorganisation of mindset is what McDonough contemplates as crucial for sustainable development through design.

It is also worth mentioning this book is not a step by step manual but instead lessons guided through clear and demonstrable design solutions that translate the Cradle to Cradle theory into a reality. Such realities include creating green rooves through architectural designs to stabilise temperatures, keep cities cooler, provide habitats for wildlife and space for flora and fauna to flourish which creates an aesthetically pleasing environment and carbon sequestration. With reference to wasted energy, instead of banning incinerators, the writers propose designing products with the initial purpose to be burned safely without an environmental impact. Most relevant to the fashion industry is producing biodegradable materials for apparel and soles for shoes as well as creating garments using the biological and technical nutrients from ‘waste’ as companies such as Piñatex and Orange Fiber. Their issues with zero waste see that the natural side effect of maintaining materials as resources through circularity can create inherent value, not only economically but for communities involved in refashioning garments and reducing the toll on ecosystems, water systems and natural landscapes.

It is easy for the reader to identify how the lessons of this publication poignantly transcend and manifest into the fashion industry.  So much so that in 2017, the McDonough Innovation founded the global initiative Fashion for Good. This was created with the vision of a collaborative joint industry that transforms the culture of apparel and textiles from one that is linear to a circular one through a Cradle to Cradle inspired model. This laboratory of innovation and action articulates itself through 5 guiding principles which are pertinent for many other industries. These are good materials which are safe, healthy and designed for reuse. Secondly, a good economy centred around circularity and growth for all stakeholders, followed by good renewable and clean energy. Fourthly, good water which is clean and available for all and finally good lives prioritising safe and dignified living and working conditions for all involved. 

Cradle to Cradle fills the reader with much needed hope that sees “A world of abundance, not limits” through design for improving the quality of life for the earth’s inhabitants.  This is a highly recommended read for all those interested in learning more about circularity, designing processes and for those seeking to broaden their imaginations as to what is feasible through design. This is especially crucial for those considering waste within the fashion industry and how to approach textile manufacturing and intelligent material pooling for apparel and its components. The uplifting examples on how innovation can enhance our ability and future trajectory in securing sustainable development ultimately support the notion that the Cradle to Cradle philosophy is a grounded utopia for design.

Further introduction to the fundamentals and reimagining of the future through Cradle to Cradle design published in this piece can be found via William McDonough’s inspirational TED talks found here.

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