Revisiting Cradle to Cradle a Decade Later

The trees outside my window are rapidly turning red and yellow and after their leaves drop, bacteria and fungi will have a feast, eventually turning valuable nutrients back to the tree. McDonough and Braungart use trees as a metaphor for how humans should be re-envisioning the design and manufacturing process to one that doesn’t include the notion of waste. When they came out with Cradle to Cradle nearly ten years ago, the concept had already been around since the 70s, but the book solidified its practical application in modern industry.

The problem, they say, is that we’ve meshed “technical” nutrients (metals, plastics, etc.) with “biological” nutrients (stuff that will decompose naturally) in a way that makes it nearly impossible to use those materials more than once. And then they sit around, festering and poisoning the biological systems around them. Their view is admirably holistic, going beyond more limited notions of recycling and efficiency to scrutinize the entire lifecycle and context of a material.

The concept is grand (and perhaps too reliant on design as a silver bullet for environmental problems), but has industry implemented these ideas in a meaningful way since the book’s publication? The authors’ firm, MBDC, has established a Cradle to Cradle certification system and consults for a lengthy list of clients including Ford, FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo. Most of the certified products seem to fall into the “Silver” category with none apparently meeting the stringent “Platinum” level. Herman Miller chairs are probably the most well-known example of a C2C-certified product.

The dilemma (and opportunity) is that products exist within a system influenced by more than the company selling the product. The notion of C2C requires multiple parties complying with standards – the transportation system that gets recyclable materials back to the factory, the chemical manufacturers that supply the raw materials, and the farms that grow the natural fibers woven into the textiles… it’s a big, complicated network that can’t be easily encapsulated by a single product’s certification. But it’s a start and it begins to pressure the system.

A video from the UK’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation expressing C2C ideals (without mentioning C2C) was featured in the Guardian earlier this year and took off on YouTube:

The authors also tout Ford’s newish River Rouge Assembly Plant which I had a chance to visit a few years ago (and watch people on the line assemble F-150 pick-up trucks – very educational!). Daylighting for the factory floor, natural storm water management, a huge 10-acre sedum green roof all make the factory a more sustainable operation, but it’s also just one building in the enormous River Rouge complex (and they're building trucks there, of course). I don't want to diminish the foresight and investment on Ford's part, but we've clearly got a lot of paradigm-shifting ahead of us.