News Brief

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. North Point Press, New York, 2002. Plasticback, 194 pages, $24.95.

Brilliant and charismatic, William McDonough has helped define ecological design in the U.S. over the past two decades with an uncompromising vision of an industrial world that supports, rather than degrades, the natural world. And chemist Michael Braungart, coming from Europe, brings a similar perspective to the world of chemicals and manufacturing. Although they have their critics, no one can ever accuse them of being too modest in their goals. Even the book itself is an experiment in a new way of making books—by printing it on a plastic sheet that looks and feels like paper but is more durable and recyclable.

If you have heard William McDonough and Michael Braungart speak at a design conference, you will already be familiar with many of the ideas in

Cradle to Cradle. The principles of “waste equals food,” “respect diversity,” and “use only current solar income” have been McDonough hallmarks for quite some time. But having their arguments laid out fully in print offers a great opportunity to take in the ideas at your own pace and consider them in various contexts.

A key theme in

Cradle to Cradle is the idea that today’s conventional efforts at reducing pollution and recycling (“downcycling” of materials to lower-value uses) are merely slowing down a process of destruction that instead must be turned around. These practices, they argue, may in fact do more harm than good by easing our collective conscience as we chug merrily along in the wrong direction. Furthermore, many of today’s common strictures are less than inspiring, having accepted a negative situation and trying to just make it “less bad.”

The authors suggest replacing the emphasis on eco-efficiency with a focus on “eco-effectiveness,” modeled on nature’s way of producing far more than is needed for a specific function (as in the example of seeds from a tree) but making it all part of a universally beneficial web. One principle for achieving this eco-effectiveness is the idea that everything we make should be completely reusable, either as a “biological nutrient” (returning beneficially to the earth) or as a “technical nutrient” (reused in an industrial process). The problem, they argue, emerges when industrial materials are mixed with natural materials (as in a cotton-polyester fabric) so that each contaminates the other and neither can be reused to its full potential.

In the vein of

Natural Capitalism (see


Vol. 9, No. 5),

Cradle to Cradle is committed to the belief that commerce, as the locus of power in society, must drive the solutions. The authors are unapologetic about working with large corporations and polluting industries, as that is where they see the potential for the greatest impact: “How can you

not work with them?” And paraphrasing Jane Jacobs, the authors write: “Commerce is … inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.”

In what can be seen as either a great achievement or a limitation (depending on your point of view), the ideas, principles, and solutions in this book are all firmly ensconced in the world of things. The authors touch, in passing, on another possibility, quoting for example Fritz Schumacher (author of

Small is Beautiful): “Real wisdom, he claimed, ‘can be found only inside oneself’ enabling one to ‘see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends.’” But Schumacher is among a series of environmentalists and philosophers whose viewpoints they introduce only to dismiss, and they never directly address Schumacher’s suggestion that deep cultural and even spiritual change must be part of the solution. If McDonough and Braungart are indeed correct that human life on this planet can be sustained without changing our materialistic culture, that may, indeed, be good news because our cult of consumerism does not appear to be weakening.

In the many examples, however, I wish they had more specific details about what exactly was accomplished and how it was achieved. More important, it would be helpful to know what

didn’t work and why. Especially when it comes to describing buildings, the book is short on specifics of this sort. Like McDonough and Braungart’s public presentations,

Cradle to Cradle is inspiring and even intimidating, challenging us to approach every design decision from a holistic perspective. Regardless of one’s response to these ideas, there is plenty here to chew on and contemplate as we seek future-friendly solutions.

Published May 1, 2002

(2002, May 1). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Retrieved from

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.