BookView | Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungari


‘It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope; and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’ – Robert F. Kennedy

Cradle to Cradle is about how the concept of “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” is, in reality, something which can be of more harm than benefit to the environment as we are trying to minimize or be ‘less bad’. The book starts off with a brief introduction about what we are really surrounded by and the things we use around us, what they contain and how such products affect us. Throwaway products are the norm. It then moves on to a brief history of how the Industrial Revolution came to be, what the objectives of this historical phase were and how it has affected us, more through a worldwide/macro view. I am then introduced to the concept of “cradle to grave”.

“They are the ultimate products of an industrial system that is designed on a linear, one-way cradle-to-grave model. Resources are extracted, shaped into products, sold, and eventually disposed of in a “grave” of some kind, usually a landfill or an incinerator.” (Cradle to Cradle, 2014). This model dominates the manufacturing process, post the Industrial Revolution era. People love new things, we are attracted to the freshly made products that we buy, and none of us ever look at the pre-buying or post-buying effect. Even if they are recycled, their next use is most likely to be a downgraded (down-cycled) version, and this at best postpones their inevitable fate of landing up in the “grave”.

Cradle to Cradle, 2014 (back cover)

The authors introduce a Cradle to Cradle model to replace the current Cradle to Grave model. The four main principles of this model are — a) Less Bad is No Good; b) Eco-efficiency Vs Eco-effectiveness: where efficiency is static and limiting and effectiveness is abundant and dynamic; c) Waste Equals Food: the concept of biological nutrients and resource enrichment for the earth through intelligent product designs; and d) Respecting Diversity: Eschew’s “One Size Fits All” principle in design. The authors explain eco-effectiveness management as a solution while integrating the patterns of production and consumption across the manufacturing process. Industrial Ecology plays a role in these principles, with open and closed loop systems intervening in the sustainable model of products.

As resources become scarcer and with the threat of intensified pollution, climate change and global warming among many environmental situations arising, it is necessary to think of alternative solutions to satisfy our consumption requirements. The concept of design then comes into picture, and the author questions the reader — what if our approach to designing products starts with how we make it, and not how we can apply the three R’s after the utility of the product is burnt out? If we choose to be eco-friendly, why not make something which would remain as a “biological nutrient” for the environment after its life-cycle is complete?  The “limits of growth” concept describes how the growth trends of world population, industrialization, pollution, and food production need to change now, or we will reach the utilization of our planet in less than a hundred years. “Eco-effectiveness” and “All Sustainability is Local” are new concepts which support arguments for sustainable produce, better. These were the most well elaborated points which stood out for me in the book, and helped me gain a better understanding of sustainable living. The book projects a goal of “Zero Waste, Zero Emissions and Zero Ecological Footprint”.

One of the unaddressed points in the book was that of the implications and complexity of integrating economics parameters in sustainability. Without a complete overview of cost-analysis benefits and the effect it has on a business-growth model economically, it is hard to advocate ecological balance through the products manufactured. Although it is important, economics and efficiency go hand in hand, because no one would want to create a dent in their profits just to remain sustainable. Although the book provides good examples to support that eco-effectiveness and sustainable technology would benefit the producer, I was not completely satisfied with the simplicity it was put forth with. The business advantages were not explored, and applying this to a model could be far more challenging in application than in theory.

“Economics plays a central role in shaping the activities of the modern world, inasmuch as it supplies the criteria of what is “economic” and what is “uneconomic,” and there is no other set of criteria that exercises a greater influence over the actions of individuals and groups as well as over those of governments. Another way of stating this is to say that economics deals with goods and services from the point of view of the market, where willing buyer meets willing seller. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. His sole concern is to obtain the best value for his money.” (Small is Beautiful, 2014). Hence, an economic analysis to further promote the use of sustainable resources needs to be stressed upon.

Although ‘All Sustainability is Local’ was a part of the book, it failed to explain a particular carrying capacity of an area or a system, and limited their examples on this concept only to technological models. Moreover, problems in defining a system means that evaluations of the eco-effectiveness of a particular process are rarely comparable, and hence they carry little weight in imagining this concept on a global industrial scale.

In recent years, the application of eco-effectiveness thinking has been increasing among national economies and enterprises, although its wider effects are being slowed down by lack of instruments for the measurement of sustainable development. It seems like a utopic idea which is centralized for all systems. Often, eco-effectiveness indicators also give only an approximate idea of the consequences of environmental impacts, which fails to satisfy experts striving for precise information. By its nature, eco-effectiveness aims towards general sustainability of activity, meaning that it often gets overpowered by specific, urgent issues of the day. Hence, it would be important to establish how eco-effectiveness could be developed and integrated as part of the everyday activities of an economy. For example, in Finland, eco-effectiveness is a major challenge as their economy was majorly built on extensive use of natural resources.

In India, Kothari Petrochemicals in Chennai, Tamil Nadu is one company producing the chemical, Polyisobutylene, while striving towards a model of eco-effectiveness. The program is designed to make efficient use of natural resources often minimize operating costs. They also prevent plant pollution through their corporation and reduce health costs. “Over the years, our preemptive use of technology, water and wastewater management initiatives have led to a drastic decline in the amount of effluents or emissions discharged by the plant.” Many companies are coming up with an inclusive strategy to include both urban and rural consumers through local sustainability projects. Welthungerhilfe India is running a number of rural and urban integrated projects with nutritious, healthy food that is supplied locally and is pesticide free with soil enrichment and sustainable techniques of food produce.

The Upcycle Project is a start-up operating across 15 cities, which has upcycled about 900 kgs of waste with safe disposal and reuse methods for unused waste. According to a Frost & Sullivan research, an ‘energy’ revolution is the need of the hour in India. LED lighting systems are expected to play a major role in reducing India’s overall energy requirements by using relatively eco-efficient and sustainable technology. A total of 24 mega cities have been planned along the line of states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Many rural areas are also being made aware of LEDs, which would help the crisis of electricity by minimal inout and maximum output of energy. Today, India is a fast-expanding market for LEDs, many foreign companies are setting up manufacturing plants to cater to the growing needs of commercial, municipal (street lighting), and residential customers.

The relevance of the Cradle to Cradle model in India is possible and achievable, considering the wide base of scientists, engineers and efficiency-focused agencies. The main challenge would be the financial capital investments and local sustainability assessments, considering the variation of geography and socio-ecological aspects across our country. With the current demand-supply requirement in India, it is necessary to transition to eco-effectiveness and adopt the Cradle to Cradle model successfully, so we are able to meet the needs of society as a whole, replenishing our planet alongside this and building a safe world for our future generations.

Ayesha Mehrotra is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective. 
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