Cradle to Cradle

William McDonough and Michael Braungart

New York: North Point Press, 2002


Go Green Guidance is based in Phoenix, Arizona

Cradle to Cradle
Rethinking the Way We Make Things

William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Cradle to Cradle is just one of those books you have to read yourself. It’s one of those books that will spark conversation at the dinner table, keep you up at night, and leave you searching the internet and library for more information. Which, in and of itself, is a two-sided coin. This is a book that makes you think, but it is also one that leaves you with more questions than answers.

Throughout the entire book, I was continuously struck by William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s ingenuity. They implore their audience to begin to think as they do – outside the box and with benevolent intentions. The authors argue that the environmental movement has long sought for people to do “less bad,” not “more good.” Consumers are asked to consume less, waste less electricity, waste less water, build smaller houses, throw away less garbage. If environmentalism (and for that matter the human race) is to succeed, then, McDonough and Braungart suggest, people need to devise a new system that aims to improve things instead of slow their decline. If this revelation seems simple, it also seems plausible when stated in Cradle to Cradle. Perhaps more remarkable still, it seems economically sound and profitable.

McDonough and Braungart go on to list a multitude of examples in which thinking outside the box has succeeded, and to name numerous inventions that are (or could be) in development that would help to change the direction our society has taken. For example, they envision a product that could entirely eliminate Styrofoam as a food packaging material:

It could be made from the empty rice stalks that are left in the fields after harvest, which are now usually burned. They are readily available and cheap. The packaging could be enriched with a small amount of nitrogen (potentially retrieved from automotive systems). Instead of feeling guilty and burdened when they are finished eating, people could enjoy throwing their safe, healthy nutripackage out the train window onto the ground, where it would quickly decompose and provide nitrogen to the soil. It could even contain seeds of indigenous plants that would take root as the packaging decomposes. (140-141)

After reading this passage I was left wondering why this didn’t exist, why it hadn’t been made in the first place, and wishing I was capable of actually designing and producing such a product.

Unfortunately, the text frequently left me feeling that there was little I could do without an advanced degree in chemistry or engineering. As a typical, liberal arts consumer, I am not in a position to be designing products. The authors of this book advise that new products should not be designed using X-list chemicals, but they do not include that complete list. They also acknowledge that it is exceptionally difficult to determine what chemicals are in which products once they have been constructed. At the inception of the book, McDonough recalls an early attempt of his to design a “green” building, stating:

With little or no research available, we turned to the manufacturers, who often told us the information was proprietary and gave us nothing beyond the vague safeguards in the material safety data sheets mandated by law. We did the best we could at the time. We used water-based paints. We tacked down carpet instead of gluing it. We provided thirty cubic feet per minute of fresh air per person instead of five. We had granite checked for radon. We used wood that was sustainably harvested. We tried to be less bad. (9)

While research has improved since then, it is still a challenge to find reliable information. As the book continued to tell me to be good and not “less bad,” I caught myself wondering how to do so without being able to find necessary information, and without the know-how to develop alternative options myself.

Despite my disappointment that McDonough and Braungart could not provide me with quick solutions, this is still an excellent book, and one everyone should read. If more college freshman encountered this text, perhaps we would have the alternatives we are looking for. I know that I was inspired to try to find a solution beyond recycling or even installing solar panels. Although I don’t have the resources to test the chemical content of everything I own, I will me a more conscious consumer with the knowledge that positive products are possible.

In the time I’ve spent exploring the world of eco-literature, I’ve often been frustrated by the reluctance of environmental writers to use guilt as a tool. Most of the books I’ve read try simply to assuage the reader’s guilt, assuming that they felt some in the first place. It is extremely interesting, in contrast, to encounter a different perspective in the pages of Cradle to Cradle.

Should manufacturers of existing products feel guilty about their complicity in this heretofore destructive agenda? Yes. No. It doesn’t matter. Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Negligence is described as doing the same thing over and over even though you know it is dangerous, stupid, or wrong. Now that we know, it’s time for a change. Negligence starts tomorrow. (117)

Once you’ve read this book, you will have to acknowledge that truth every time you purchase something volatile, every time you throw something away that could be given new life, and every time you design a product (if you do) that could be made better. It is a book that gives responsibility to the reader in a way many do not.