Cradle To Cradle – (Almost) Ten Years Later

William McDonough and Michael Braungart (Copyright: MBDC)

Every field needs a celebrity. The environmental movement has long suffered its unwashed, off-grid, hippie image and needs all the glamor it can soak up. The closest to A-list celebrities that the tree hugger brigade have are William McDonough and Micheal Braungart. The duo came on the international scene with the publication of their ground-breaking book in 2002 and caught the attention of big business and governments with a simple yet powerful idea. Ever since, they have hobnobbed with a long list of movers and shakers and created a cult-like group of believers around the world. (In keeping with his guru status, McDonough even organizes a annual retreat to Iceland with an elite guest list and reputedly doesn’t invite people twice.) It is hard to deny that the sustainability movement owes some of their mainstream acceptance to them.

Through their book, McDonough and Braungart popularized the idea of ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life cycles for products, as opposed to products going from cradle to grave. What do cradles and graves have anything to do with consumer products, you ask? Post-industrialization, products are largely designed to go from manufacturing (cradle) to landfill (grave). McDonough and Braungart argue that such an untimely death for products is a tremendous waste of resources and that these goods should, instead, plug into a unending cycle of material recovery and reuse. In simple words, instead of throwing out that old television into the trash, it should be recovered and its components put to good use in new televisions or other appliances. Better still, that television should become plant food and feed the natural world. In the rosy utopia built by McDonough and Braungart, buildings produce more energy than they use and effluent water from factories is cleaner than the water that goes in. Instead of designing products that are less bad, they say, why don’t we design things that are inherently good? Reading the book makes you want to live with the authors in their perfect world, where waste=food, solar income is treasured and diversity is celebrated. Once the buzz subsides, you find yourself asking the inevitable, ‘how do we make it happen?’.

The authors have a partial solution to that question. Through their consultancy, MBDC, McDonough and Braungart converted their theory into a system for product certification (more here). Over the last ten years, they have certified nearly 420+ products, ranging from stamps to diapers. Is that enough to stem the tide of ‘bad’ stuff that our factories churn out day after day? With a ten-year anniversary of their book (and their rise to global fame) coming up in 2012, have they delivered on their vision?

No, say their detractors, the most controversial of these, an article in Fast Company that reads like a tabloid exposé. (It is a fascinating piece though, as juicy as they come). Most mainstream (and less personal) criticism focuses on their blue-sky theory weighed down by their tightly-guarded and expensive certification process. How do the green gurus expect their vision to become reality if they keep all the tools to themselves? Perhaps, critics reason, a combination of personal ambition and short-sightedness stunted the growth of a potentially world-changing idea.

Potentially world-changing, because I have reservations. The conventional product life cycle is pretty straightforward, as seen below.  McDonough and Braungart, however, want the industrial ecosystem to mimic the cyclical way in which nature works. Consumption is beneficial as long as we are consuming ‘good’ products, products that become ‘food’ for the industrial (or biological) cycles instead of ending up as waste. The C2C life cycle looks something like the image below.

When you start to think about this cycle, it doesn’t add up. Disproportionate amounts of raw material (and energy) go into making one product, a term that resource intensity tries to define. A cup of coffee (8 fl.oz), for example, requires approximately  7.5 gallons or 122 cups of water to produce, starting all the way from irrigating the coffee crop to getting rid of spent grounds. At each stage of a product’s life cycle, raw material is refined, treated and processed to create something that a consumer sees value in, leaving us with a C2C flowchart that look more like this;

Less and less material is passed on at each stage (I assume that the small amount of material that is reused from C2C products is not going to compensate for growing demand), making it difficult for a business to grow. Cradle to Cradle is an inspiring idea, but it doesn’t fundamentally mesh in with our current consumption paradigm. What we need is a new economy where we rethink our use-throw-buy pattern of consumption to a system where products have greater value in our lives. In that world, we can live together with McDonough and Braungart happily ever after.

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