Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

by William McDonough, Michael Braungart

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A manifesto for a radically different philosophy and practice of manufacture and environmentalism

"Reduce, reuse, recycle" urge environmentalists; in other words, do more with less in order to minimize damage. But as this provocative, visionary book argues, this approach perpetuates a one-way, "cradle to grave" manufacturing model that dates to the Industrial Revolution and casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic. Why not challenge the notion that human industry must inevitably damage the natural world?

In fact, why not take nature itself as our model? A tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to create another tree, yet we do not consider its abundance wasteful but safe, beautiful, and highly effective; hence, "waste equals food" is the first principle the book sets forth. Products might be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new-either as "biological nutrients" that safely re-enter the environment or as "technical nutrients" that circulate within closed-loop industrial cycles, without being "downcycled" into low-grade uses (as most "recyclables" now are).

Elaborating their principles from experience (re)designing everything from carpeting to corporate campuses, William McDonough and Michael Braungart make an exciting and viable case for change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865475878
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/22/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 106,978
Product dimensions: 7.92(w) x 7.14(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

William McDonough is an architect and the founding principal of William McDonough + Partners, Architecture and Community Design, based in Charlottesville, Virginia. From 1994 to 1999 he served as dean of the school of architecture at the University of Virginia. In 1999 Time magazine recognized him as a "Hero for the Planet," stating that "his utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that—in demonstrable and practical ways—is changing the design of the world." In 1996, he received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the highest environmental honor given by United States.

Michael Braungart is a chemist and the founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg, Germany. Prior to starting EPEA, he was the director of the chemistry section for Greenpeace. Since 1984 he has been lecturing at universities, businesses, and institutions around the world on critical new concepts for ecological chemistry and materials flow management. Dr. Braungart is the recipient of numerous honors, awards, and fellowships from the Heinz Endowment, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and other organizations.

In 1995 the authors created McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a product and systems development firm assisting client companies in implementing their unique sustaining design protocol. Their clients include Ford Motor Company, Nike, Herman Miller, BASF, DesignTex, Pendleton, Volvo, and the city of Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Cradle to Cradle

Remaking the Way We Make Things

By William McDonough, Michael Braungart

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2002 William McDonough and Michael Braungart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7384-7


A Question of Design

In the spring of 1912, one of the largest moving objects ever created by human beings left Southampton, England, and began gliding toward New York. It appeared to be the epitome of its industrial age — a potent representation of technology, prosperity, luxury, and progress. It weighed 66,000 tons. Its steel hull stretched the length of four city blocks. Each of its steam engines was the size of a town house. And it was headed for a disastrous encounter with the natural world.

This vessel, of course, was the Titanic, a brute of a ship, seemingly impervious to the forces of the natural world. In the minds of the captain, the crew, and many of the passengers, nothing could sink it.

One might say that the Titanic was not only a product of the Industrial Revolution but remains an apt metaphor for the industrial infrastructure that revolution created. Like that famous ship, this infrastructure is powered by brutish and artificial sources of energy that are environmentally depleting. It pours waste into the water and smoke into the sky. It attempts to work by its own rules, which are contrary to those of nature. And although it may seem invincible, the fundamental flaws in its design presage tragedy and disaster.

A Brief History of the Industrial Revolution

Imagine that you have been given the assignment of designing the Industrial Revolution — retrospectively. With respect to its negative consequences, the assignment would have to read something like this:

Design a system of production that

• puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year

• produces some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations

• results in gigantic amounts of waste

• puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved

• requires thousands of complex regulations — not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly

• measures productivity by how few people are working

• creates prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them

• erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices.

Of course, the industrialists, engineers, inventors, and other minds behind the Industrial Revolution never intended such consequences. In fact, the Industrial Revolution as a whole was not really designed. It took shape gradually, as industrialists, engineers, and designers tried to solve problems and to take immediate advantage of what they considered to be opportunities in an unprecedented period of massive and rapid change.

It began with textiles in England, where agriculture had been the main occupation for centuries. Peasants farmed, the manor and town guilds provided food and goods, and industry consisted of craftspeople working individually as a side venture to farming. Within a few decades, this cottage industry, dependent on the craft of individual laborers for the production of small quantities of woolen cloth, was transformed into a mechanized factory system that churned out fabric — much of it now cotton instead of wool — by the mile.

This change was spurred by a quick succession of new technologies. In the mid-1700s cottage workers spun thread on spinning wheels in their homes, working the pedals with their hands and feet to make one thread at a time. The spinning jenny, patented in 1770, increased the number of threads from one to eight, then sixteen, then more. Later models would spin as many as eighty threads simultaneously. Other mechanized equipment, such as the water frame and the spinning mule, increased production levels at such a pace, it must have seemed something like Moore's Law (named for Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel), in which the processing speed of computer chips roughly doubles every eighteen months.

In preindustrial times, exported fabrics would travel by canal or sailing ships, which were slow and unreliable in poor weather, weighted with high duties and strict laws, and vulnerable to piracy. In fact, it was a wonder the cargo got to its destination at all. The railroad and the steamship allowed products to be moved more quickly and farther. By 1840 factories that had once made a thousand articles a week had the means and motivation to produce a thousand articles a day. Fabric workers grew too busy to farm and moved into towns to be closer to factories, where they and their families might work twelve or more hours a day. Urban areas spread, goods proliferated, and city populations increased. More, more, more — jobs, people, products, factories, businesses, markets — seemed to be the rule of the day.

Like all paradigm shifts, this one encountered resistance. Cottage workers afraid of losing work and Luddites (followers of Ned Ludd) — experienced cloth makers angry about the new machines and the unapprenticed workers who operated them — smashed labor-saving equipment and made life difficult for inventors, some of whom died outcast and penniless before they could profit from their new machines. Resistance touched not simply on technology but on spiritual and imaginative life. The Romantic poets articulated the growing difference between the rural, natural landscape and that of the city — often in despairing terms: "Citys ... are nothing less than over grown prisons that shut out the world and all its beauties," wrote the poet John Clare. Artists and aesthetes like John Ruskin and William Morris feared for a civilization whose aesthetic sensibility and physical structures were being reshaped by materialistic designs.

There were other, more lasting problems. Victorian London was notorious for having been "the great and dirty city," as Charles Dickens called it, and its unhealthy environment and suffering underclasses became hallmarks of the burgeoning industrial city. London air was so grimy from airborne pollutants, especially emissions from burning coal, that people would change their cuffs and collars at the end of the day (behavior that would be repeated in Chattanooga during the 1960s, and even today in Beijing or Manila). In early factories and other industrial operations, such as mining, materials were considered expensive, but people were often considered cheap. Children as well as adults worked for long hours in deplorable conditions.

But the general spirit of early industrialists — and of many others at the time — was one of great optimism and faith in the progress of humankind. As industrialization boomed, other institutions emerged that assisted its rise: commercial banks, stock exchanges, and the commercial press all opened further employment opportunities for the new middle class and tightened the social network around economic growth. Cheaper products, public transportation, water distribution and sanitation, waste collection, laundries, safe housing, and other conveniences gave people, both rich and poor, what appeared to be a more equitable standard of living. No longer did the leisure classes alone have access to all the comforts.

The Industrial Revolution was not planned, but it was not without a motive. At bottom it was an economic revolution, driven by the desire for the acquisition of capital. Industrialists wanted to make products as efficiently as possible and to get the greatest volume of goods to the largest number of people. In most industries, this meant shifting from a system of manual labor to one of efficient mechanization.

Consider cars. In the early 1890s the automobile (of European origin) was made to meet a customer's specifications by craftspeople who were usually independent contractors. For example, a machine-tool company in Paris, which happened to be the leading manufacturer of cars at the time, produced only several hundred a year. They were luxury items, built slowly and carefully by hand. There was no standard system of measuring and gauging parts, and no way to cut hard steel, so parts were created by different contractors, hardened under heat (which often altered dimensions), and individually filed down to fit the hundreds of other parts in the car. No two were alike, nor could they be.

Henry Ford worked as an engineer, a machinist, and a builder of race cars (which he himself raced) before founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903. After producing a number of early vehicles, Ford realized that to make cars for the modern American worker — not just for the wealthy — he would need to manufacture vehicles cheaply and in great quantities. In 1908 his company began producing the legendary Model T, the "car for the great multitude" that Ford had dreamed of, "constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise ... so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one."

In the following years, several aspects of manufacturing meshed to achieve this goal, revolutionizing car production and rapidly increasing levels of efficiency. First, centralization: in 1909 Ford announced that the company would produce only Model T's and in 1910 moved to a much larger factory that would use electricity for its power and gather a number of production processes under one roof. The most famous of Ford's innovations is the moving assembly line. In early production, the engines, frames, and bodies of the cars were assembled separately, then brought together for final assembly by a group of workmen. Ford's innovation was to bring "the materials to the man," instead of "the man to the materials." He and his engineers developed a moving assembly line based on the ones used in the Chicago beef industry: it carried materials to workers and, at its most efficient, enabled each of them to repeat a single operation as the vehicle moved down the line, reducing overall labor time dramatically.

This and other advances made possible the mass production of the universal car, the Model T, from a centralized location, where many vehicles were assembled at once. Increasing efficiency pushed costs of the Model T down (from 850 in 1908 to 290 in 1925), and sales skyrocketed. By 1911, before the introduction of the assembly line, sales of the Model T had totaled 39,640. By 1927, total sales reached fifteen million.

The advantages of standardized, centralized production were manifold. Obviously, it could bring greater, quicker affluence to industrialists. On another front, manufacturing was viewed as what Winston Churchill referred to as "the arsenal of democracy," because the productive capacity was so huge, it could (as in the two world wars) produce an undeniably potent response to war conditions. Mass production had another democratizing aspect: as the Model T demonstrated, when prices of a previously unattainable item or service plummeted, more people had access to it. New work opportunities in factories improved standards of living, as did wage increases. Ford himself assisted in this shift. In 1914, when the prevailing salary for factory workers was 2.34 a day, he hiked it to 5, pointing out that cars cannot buy cars. (He also reduced the hours of the workday from nine to eight.) In one fell swoop, he actually created his own market, and raised the bar for the entire world of industry.

Viewed from a design perspective, the Model T epitomized the general goal of the first industrialists: to make a product that was desirable, affordable, and operable by anyone, just about anywhere; that lasted a certain amount of time (until it was time to buy a new one); and that could be produced cheaply and quickly. Along these lines, technical developments centered on increasing "power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity, speed," to use the Ford manufacturing checklist for mass production.

For obvious reasons, the design goals of early industrialists were quite specific, limited to the practical, profitable, efficient, and linear. Many industrialists, designers, and engineers did not see their designs as part of a larger system, outside of an economic one. But they did share some general assumptions about the world.

"Those Essences Unchanged by Man"

Early industries relied on a seemingly endless supply of natural "capital." Ore, timber, water, grain, cattle, coal, land — these were the raw materials for the production systems that made goods for the masses, and they still are today. Ford's River Rouge plant epitomized the flow of production on a massive scale: huge quantities of iron, coal, sand, and other raw materials entered one side of the facility and, once inside, were transformed into new cars. Industries fattened as they transformed resources into products. The prairies were overtaken for agriculture, and the great forests were cut down for wood and fuel. Factories situated themselves near natural resources for easy access (today a prominent window company is located in a place that was originally surrounded by giant pines, used for the window frames) and beside bodies of water, which they used both for manufacturing processes and to dispose of wastes.

In the nineteenth century, when these practices began, the subtle qualities of the environment were not a widespread concern. Resources seemed immeasurably vast. Nature itself was perceived as a "mother earth" who, perpetually regenerative, would absorb all things and continue to grow. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prescient philosopher and poet with a careful eye for nature, reflected a common belief when, in the early 1830s, he described nature as "essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf." Many people believed there would always be an expanse that remained unspoiled and innocent. The popular fiction of Rudyard Kipling and others evoked wild parts of the world that still existed and, it seemed, always would.

At the same time, the Western view saw nature as a dangerous, brutish force to be civilized and subdued. Humans perceived natural forces as hostile, so they attacked back to exert control. In the United States, taming the frontier took on the power of a defining myth, and "conquering" wild, natural places was recognized as a cultural — even spiritual — imperative.

Today our understanding of nature has dramatically changed. New studies indicate that the oceans, the air, the mountains, and the plants and animals that inhabit them are more vulnerable than early innovators ever imagined. But modern industries still operate according to paradigms that developed when humans had a very different sense of the world. Neither the health of natural systems, nor an awareness of their delicacy, complexity, and interconnectedness, have been part of the industrial design agenda. At its deepest foundation, the industrial infrastructure we have today is linear: it is focused on making a product and getting it to a customer quickly and cheaply without considering much else.

To be sure, the Industrial Revolution brought a number of positive social changes. With higher standards of living, life expectancy greatly increased. Medical care and education greatly improved and became more widely available. Electricity, telecommunications, and other advances raised comfort and convenience to a new level. Technological advances brought the so-called developing nations enormous benefits, including increased productivity of agricultural land and vastly increased harvests and food storage for growing populations.

But there were fundamental flaws in the Industrial Revolution's design. They resulted in some crucial omissions, and devastating consequences have been handed down to us, along with the dominant assumptions of the era in which the transformation took shape.

From Cradle to Grave

Imagine what you would come upon today at a typical landfill: old furniture, upholstery, carpets, televisions, clothing, shoes, telephones, computers, complex products, and plastic packaging, as well as organic materials like diapers, paper, wood, and food wastes. Most of these products were made from valuable materials that required effort and expense to extract and make, billions of dollars' worth of material assets. The biodegradable materials such as food matter and paper actually have value too — they could decompose and return biological nutrients to the soil. Unfortunately, all of these things are heaped in a landfill, where their value is wasted. They are the ultimate products of an industrial system that is designed on a linear, one-way cradletograve model. Resources are extracted, shaped into products, sold, and eventually disposed of in a "grave" of some kind, usually a landfill or incinerator. You are probably familiar with the end of this process because you, the customer, are responsible for dealing with its detritus. Think about it: you may be referred to as a consumer, but there is very little that you actually consume — some food, some liquids. Everything else is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it. But where is "away"? Of course, "away" does not really exist. "Away" has gone away.


Excerpted from Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough, Michael Braungart. Copyright © 2002 William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction This Book Is Not a Tree,
Chapter One A Question of Design,
Chapter Two Why Being "Less Bad" Is No Good,
Chapter Three Eco-Effectiveness,
Chapter Four Waste Equals Food,
Chapter Five Respect Diversity,
Chapter Six Putting Eco-Effectiveness into Practice,

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