The Cradle to Cradle Challenge

The industrial revolution changed the way people interacted with the earth because people wanted to subscribe to that change. The industrial revolution brought about mass produced conveniences that people wanted. Some would argue that this caused irreparable damage to the environment. If we are to argue that a new design revolution is taking root, this so-called “cradle to cradle movement,” what makes it so compelling that people will want to subscribe?

In “Upsizing,” Gunter Pauli tries to establish Generative Science as that solution. The author introduces this topic in the context of Darwin and Entropy. He argues that Darwin viewed evolution too narrowly by studying individual species in isolation when survival in nature depends on species integration within the broader ecological system. When we view nature as a system, we realize that there is more cooperation across species than competition. The death of one becomes the food for another. Entropy views life as a linear path towards chaos. It is a predominately Western mindset that encourages people to consume as much as they can during their lifetime. It is narrow in its view. From the standpoint of one person, things move from order to disorder as the body ages. But this does not have to hold true for the broader system of humanity. Generative Science embraces an Eastern mindset that considers the entire life cycle. By engineering the “waste” of one product to become the food for another process in a constructive manner, the cradle to cradle method encourages a healthier form of sustainable design than conservation techniques that only mitigate ecological damage.

McDonough and Braungart elaborate on Generative Science in “The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design, and the Transformation of Human Industry” by presenting the case for how cradle to cradle design needs to be celebratory of its local environment. They identify two forms of “nutrients” in cradle to cradle design: biological, which come from directly natural processes, and technical, which come from closed loops of reuse for materials that nature cannot absorb. Reclaiming and upcycling materials to create improved products occurs in the textiles industry. BASF uses a transformative process to rematerialize (rather than dematerialize as in the case of paper recycling) nylon 6 to make it an improved fiber.

Products need to adapt to the local environment. For example, the chemicals needed in soap depend on the hardness of water and the use of that soap. The environment’s needs from the runoff of soap water differ by region. National soap manufacturers do not take these considerations into account and simply add more chemicals to override local conditions. Locally produced detergents would be better suited for the community and promote local employment. Yet these extravagant gestures do not typify America because of the overarching economics. Cradle to cradle is touted as better, but only in isolated cases does it seem economically feasible.

This is the challenge we must face. How can we find solutions that incorporate the constraints of a broader ecological system into our design? What kinds of materials become suitable biological and technical waste for the environments of our target audience? Moreover, how do we make our solutions sufficiently compelling that consumers will want to buy into a cradle to cradle lifestyle? If we can’t compete on price, we must compete on feature set. This begs the question, “What aspects of the local environment can we leverage in biology or technology to lower the production cost or enrich the meaning of our products?”

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