What is Cradle to Cradle®?

The central idea of Cradle to Cradle®, created by German chemist Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart and the US architect William McDonough is to design healthy, circular material flows – either biological or technical.

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The Cradle to Cradle® philosophy calls for a new way of looking at the manufacturing design process to ensure that goods do no harm to human health or the ecology of the planet.

This means the process is focused on the kinds of chemicals used in the materials that make up the products as well as making sure they are designed so they can be disassembled at the end of the product life cycle.

Braungart and McDonough note that low quality materials are used to make many high-tech products, leading to potential toxins that can harm human health. Cradle-to-grave designs dominate, they continue, adding that by some accounts more than 90 per cent of materials extracted to make durable goods in the United States become waste almost immediately.1

The authors respect the environmental goals of eco-efficiency (reducing or reusing waste, for example). But they add that it is better to design something that is 100 per cent good instead of trying to minimise the impact of something that was not designed as well. This goal of improving design lies at the heart of the Cradle to Cradle® philosophy, referred to by Braungart and McDonough as ‘eco-effectiveness’.

The cherry tree provides a perfect example of what industry can learn from nature. Everything that falls from the tree has a purpose, helping to rejuvenate new life. Nothing is wasted. Waste equals food, whether that is for insects, animals or humans.

“Consider the cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow,” Braungart and McDonough write.

“Who would look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, how inefficient and wasteful! The tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Once they fall on the ground, their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and soil. Although the tree actually makes more of its ‘products’ than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved (through millions of years of success and failure or, in business terms, R&D), to serve rich and varied purposes. In fact, the tree’s fecundity nourishes just about everything around it.”2

1 Braungart, M & McDonough, W., Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way We Make Things (Vintage, 2009), PP. 53-67 & pp.72-73.
2 Braungart, M & McDonough, W., Cradle to Cradle: Re-Making the Way We Make Things (Vintage, 2009), pp.72-73.