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Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonoungh, Michael Braungart

Cradle to Cradle is a non-fiction work with the tone of a manifesto that calls for the transformation of human industry through “eco-effective” design. Production in just one direction (from cradle to grave) should be converted into “eco-effectiveness” (from cradle to cradle: a model that feeds itself, without generating waste nor contamination).

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things explains, through a careful analysis of the production method of goods since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, that products that can be used to produce something new, once they have ceased to be useful.

The end of “reduce, reuse, recycle”

In Cradle to Cradle, German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough reject the maxim preached for decades by environmentalists- the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. The concept of reducing, reusing and recycling, they argue, signifies “to do more with less in order to minimize damage”.

Cradle to Cradle fights against what we consider normal: the waste created by used products, which are often manufactured with environmentally dangerous and toxic products.

This concept of reduction of waste only perpetuates, according to the authors, a way of production that is uni-directional, “from cradle to grave”, conceived during the Industrial Revolution and the system responsible for extraordinary quantities of waste and pollution.

McDonough and Braungart propose catching the problem beginning at the source: if a building uses a lot of energy in air conditioning and lighting, optimizing the performance of its cooling system, installing low consuming lightbulbs and even photovoltaic panels serves only to reduce the energy expense, but it continues spending energy.

If the same building had been conceived from the start taking advantage of cross ventilation and natural lighting, it wouldn’t generate energy expenses that later need to be reduced when the design has been badly planned from the start.

This example can be extrapolated to all types of industrial processes, materials and manufactured products.

“Cradle to grave” vs “cradle to cradle”

The value of Cradle to Cradle resides in the novelty of ideas and action that it proposes:

  • To ban the belief that human industry has to damage the natural world, given a system where production is based on the expropriation of natural resources that are transformed through an industrial process.
  • To study nature and use it as a model for creating things: “A tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to create another tree, yet we do not consider its abundance wasteful but safe, beautiful, and highly effective; hence, “waste equals food” is the first principle the book sets forth.”

The beginning of eco-effectiveness

In nature “waste equals food”. Guided by this principle, McDonough and Braungart explain how products can be conceived taking into account the regenerative capacity of nature, capable of converting “waste” into “food”.

The authors explain how distinct types of products can be created, based on this principle:

  • “Biological nutrients”: these can easily return to water or the earth without leaving synthetic or toxic residues.
  • “Technical nutrients”: goods that continually circulate like raw materials in closed industrial cycles, in place of being recycled in materials and uses that only use a part of the original material and discard the remainder.

Using a simplified explanation of the Industrial Revolution; a commentary of the science, nature and societies; descriptions of the fundamental principles of industrial design; and examples of innovative products and business strategies that are carried out taking into account the principle of eco-effectiveness, the authors believe it is possible to transform a system that “takes, makes and wastes” into one that can create goods and services capable of generating environmental, economic and social value.

The postulates of Cradle to Cradle are based on lifecycle studies of Braungart and other researchers from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) during the nineties.

Preaching by example: the material used for the book

The book honors the introductory title: “This book is not a tree”. As a physical symbol of the changes that it proposes, the work is printed on synthetic paper made from plastic resins and inorganic waste, designed to appear and act like the highest quality paper, both flexible and water resistant.

At faircompanies we performed a fun experiment: we bathed while reading the work and the book is still in perfect shape.

Buildings as trees and sustainable transport (both travelers and merchandise?)

Cradle to Cradle is obligatory reading for industrial designers, businesspeople, executives, students, architects and anyone interested in a well-articulated alternative to how things are made that is respectful of nature and how industrial production should be in the coming decades.

Eco-effectiveness is summarized by the authors as:

  • Buildings, like trees, that produce more energy than they consume and that purify their waste.
  • Factories capable of producing water as waste.
  • Products that, once past their useful life, don’t become garbage, but can return to the earth and through their decomposition, become food and nutrients for the earth.
  • Products that can be reincorporated into industrial cycles.
  • Materials can be recuperated for natural uses.
  • Transportation methods capable of improving our quality of life at the same time as distributing products and services.
  • A world of abundance and not one of limitations, contamination and waste.

The reading of Cradle to Cradle leaves one optimistic about the future of the planet. Once finished, the reader better understands the dedication of the book (“To our families, and to all the children of all species for all time”).


  • Title: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
  • Publisher: North Point Press
  • Pages: 208
  • Year: 2002