Cradle to Cradle Design

Cradle to Cradle Design -

The concept of cradle-to-cradle design was pioneered by the architect William McDonough and the chemist Michael Braungart.  They point out that the lifecycle of a traditional product begins when raw materials are drawn from nature and wrought, by way of fossil fuels or potent chemicals, into a practical form.  The result is an object of limited durability, which, drained of its utility, ends up crowding our landfills and polluting our land, water, and air.  The whole of this flawed process – what they have dubbed cradle-to-grave design – stems from the industrial revolution of the 19th century which brought unprecedented levels of efficiency and output to centers of production.  Yet the design of this revolution was based on a worldview in which both resources and the capacity of nature to absorb waste and pollutants—the sources and the sinks—were inexhaustible.

Today we know the breakthroughs of the first industrial revolution have unintended consequences which threaten people and ecosystems.  When earths’ resources are used faster than they can be replenished and when the leftovers of this use accumulate faster that they can be absorbed, the result is an unsustainable relationship between human societies and the biosphere.  The solution is a new industrial revolution where products are designed from cradle-to-cradle and account for the comprehensive impacts of production, use, and disposal.

Buying Guide

The ideals of cradle-to-cradle design are embodied by only a handful of commercially available products.  While these products make significant steps towards sustainability, they are rarely, if ever, perfect.  It is also important to note that issues of fair trade, workers rights, and the socio-cultural implications of a product are not always factored.  Recently, a division of MBDC has begun to specialize in cradle-to-cradle (C2C) product certification.  Other product certifying bodies, such as Energy Star and Green Seal, specifically address high-impact aspects of the product lifecycle.  In general:

  • Buy C2C Certified products
  • Buy third-party certified products with specific reductions in high impact areas of the lifecycle (sometimes termed as products that are “less-bad”)
  • Buy products that contain recycled content
  • Buy products that are specifically designed for disassembly and reuse
  • Buy products that can be recycled or composted

Best Practices

The concept of cradle-to-cradle design gives specific guidance to corporate decision makers and the designers of products and services.  Responding to negative media attention and government regulation, many industries have begun to minimize waste, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources.  This strategy, known as “eco-efficiency,” simply attempts to mitigate an inherently destructive system.  McDonough and Braungart instead call for “eco-effectiveness” where long term prosperity is insured by manufacturing processes that are “designed to be healthy and renewable in the first place.” 

In practice, cradle-to-cradle design distinguishes between the biological and technical nutrients embodied by a product.  Biological nutrients are materials “posing no immediate or eventual hazard to living systems that can be used for human purposes and can safely return to the environment to feed environmental processes.”  Likewise, technical nutrients exist “in a closed-loop system of manufacture, reuse, and recovery, maintaining (their) value through many product cycles.”  On the whole, cradle-to-cradle designs: 

  • Consider the full lifecycle impacts of a product or service.
  • Make human and environmental health a prerequisite.
  • Eliminate the concept of waste by creating value at each stage of the product lifecycle.

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