Cradle to Cradle Incorporating Nature's Plan

In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Northpoint Press). They identify two fundamental problems. The first is that we design products to be thrown “away” when, in fact, there is no “away,” and cradle-to-grave designs foul our own nest. The Earth is a finite, closed, living system, and the things we produce are not beamed to a distant galaxy but stay right here and affect the health of our planet.

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The second problem is that we use materials and chemicals that are unsafe and harmful to ourselves and our environment. Of course, massive effort is expended to minimize the effects of these hazardous materials (with various degrees of success). But the question remains: Why are we using bad materials in the first place?

A useful analogy is put forward in Paul Hawken’s book Natural Capitalism, which asks the reader to “imagine an industrial system that has no provisions for landfills, outfalls or smokestacks. If a company knew that nothing that came into its factory could be thrown away, and that everything it produced would eventually return, how would it design its components and products? The question is more than a theoretical construct, because the earth works under precisely these strictures.”

Cradle to Cradle calls for a new Industrial Revolution. The authors joke that if the first Industrial Revolution had a motto, it would be, “If brute force doesn’t work, you’re not using enough of it.” The new Industrial Revolution, they say, will involve much greater levels of planning and design, resulting in the elimination of unnecessary, unintended and often harmful production.

Cradle-to-cradle design involves learning from nature through “biomimicry,” an effort to design “buildings like trees, cities like forests.” The concept challenges us to make the ant a role model. Ants actually have more collective biomass on Earth than humans do, and they inhabit as diverse a range of environments. But ants are able to hunt, scavenge, and grow their own food, build their homes, effectively handle their wastes, create powerful medicines, and produce biological and chemical wea-pons, all the while contributing to the health of the natural world.

All of this may sound like hippie mumbo-jumbo: “We should live like the ants, man.” But companies like Wal-Mart, Nike, SC Johnson and Ford are listening, and saving millions of dollars.

While fully revolutionizing design is a complicated process, there are some simple guidelines in Cradle to Cradle that capture its essence. The first major step is the elimination of all substances “teratogenic, mutagenic, carcinogenic, or otherwise harmful in direct and obvious ways to human and ecological health.” The second step is for designers to abandon the cradle-to-grave mentality and think about the life of the product and its packaging after it is bought. How will it re-enter the biological or industrial system?

The first Industrial Revolution took place in a world devoid of ecological concerns. Humans knew little about the effects of pollution, and assumed the planet could absorb an infinite amount of toxins. The realization that we were affecting the health of the planet had to be hastily tacked onto our industrial system. The regulations that came with that awakening have always been viewed by business as albatrosses, obstacles preventing companies from achieving their central role of maximizing profits. Cradle to Cradle concludes, “[U]ltimately, a regulation is a signal of design failure.”

The authors say that if lifecycles are designed into the products we use every day, the goals advanced by industry and by society will finally match. Just as no regulation is needed to force a corporation to pursue a profit, no program will be needed to force a corporation not to pollute. Companies will compete for discarded “used” products as prime sources of raw materials, and one factory’s manufacturing process will feed off the effluent (formerly known as pollution) of another. As Buckminster Fuller described it, “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.” CONTACT: MBDC, (434)295-1111,

—Shannon Huecker