Saturday, June 27, 2009

McDonough & Braungart: Cradle to Cradle


William McDonough was born in Tokyo in 1951, the son of an American executive. He trained in architecture in the US and quickly found a niche designing environmentally friendly buildings. He was Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia between 1994 and 1999. As well as his company with Michael Braungart, he runs an architecture firm, a consultancy and a clean tech venture capital firm.

Michael Braungart was born in Germany in 1958. A chemist by training, his career has taken in the private sector, academia and a substantial amount of work as a Greenpeace activist. He runs his own business and is a Professor at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

Together McDonough and Braungart developed the Cradle to Cradle concept, set up the company McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) as an implementation/certification company and wrote the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things”.


McDonough and Braungart’s big idea was the Cradle to Cradle concept outlined in their eponymous 2002 book. They shunned the eco-efficiency (less stuff) approach taken by the mainstream of environmental thinking and adopted an ecological model (better stuff) where the economy simply becomes one of the earth’s natural cycles. It should be noted that the origin of the term “cradle to cradle” is much debated with some attributing it to the German architect Walter Stahel.

Cradle to Cradle has three key principles:

• Use Solar Income: as opposed to fossil fuels which are stored solar energy;

• Waste = Food: nothing goes to waste, all material flows should be useful to the rest of the economy or the environment, or designed out;

• Respect Diversity: be compatible with the natural world.

Toxic materials should not be tolerated in designs, summed up in the classic soundbite:

“Take the filters out of the pipes and put them where they belong - in the designers’ heads.”

This is a key difference between Cradle to Cradle and standard eco-efficiency approaches. Eco-efficiency doesn’t encourage us to substitute materials, merely minimise them. Using less toxic material is a bit like saying “I’m not murdering as many people as I used to”, whereas the ecological model says “Thou shalt not kill”.

Another key concept of Cradle to Cradle is the ‘technical nutrient’. In the same way as biological nutrients can be cycled endlessly in the environment, technical nutrients are non-toxic man made materials which can be recycled endlessly into the same grade of material, unlike many materials which are ‘downcycled’ into lower grade material. “Cradle to Cradle” as a physical book follows these principles, being made out of compatible plastics so the whole thing could be melted down and recycled en masse ie it is a technical nutrient. It also has the interesting spin off benefit that you can read it in the bath.
The most famous implementation of Cradle to Cradle is the Climatex fabric. The fabric is created from wool and ramie fibre and is completely compostable. It also claims to soak up and dissipate moisture for “climate control seating comfort.” Only 16 out of 1600 possible dyes passed stringent toxicology tests, but these could produce any colour except black (Henry Ford would spin in his grave). Famously the manufacturing process produces effluent cleaner than the Swiss drinking quality water entering the plant.

William McDonough in particular has become something of an eco-celebrity, being feted by A-listers such as Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt and Darryl Hannah and winning may awards. However his past collaborators have not been so enamoured, lining up to attack him in a 2008 article in Fast Company magazine. Their criticisms include McDonough being self-mythologising, leaving a trail of failed projects in his wake, being difficult to work with, and being rather grasping in terms of both money and intellectual property rights.

The personal criticisms are irrelevant to McDonough and Braungart’s status as Green Gurus. What they have done with Cradle to Cradle is articulate a higher level of environmental design. We do not expect our visionary thinkers to also be fantastic implementers. Perhaps the duo should recognise their limitations and loosen the intellectual property protection on Cradle to Cradle and let good implementers take the concept to reality, or test it to destruction.

A practical criticism of of Cradle to Cradle has come from Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek of the Wuppertal Institute, who does not believe it can be implemented on a grand scale. This is a genuine concern – being an ecological model, the concept is limited by the same factor as the cycles in the natural world – the ability to capture solar energy. Therefore there is a strong argument for Cradle to Cradle to co-exist with efficiency measures, particularly in the use of energy.

© Terra Infirma 2009, all rights reserved

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At March 30, 2010 at 6:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great website.
Thanks for the insight into their thinking. I need to add all these to my book list.


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