Ask the Experts: Why Hasn't Cradle-To-Cradle Design Caught on Yet?

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cradle to cradle book cover photo
CC BY 2.0. Zach Taylor

Zach Taylor/CC BY 2.0

It seems like everybody who knows the Cradle-to-Cradle principles thinks they're brilliant, yet adoption of the methodology and design philosophy seems slow. What is holding it back? Can we expect a breakthrough in the near future?

William McDonough, architect, author and award-winning sustainable development consultant, answers:

"It’s been exciting to watch people around the world recognize what Dr. Michael Braungart and I have been putting forward as the Cradle to Cradle® concept—a new way of thinking about human activity on Earth. We have been working developing and articulating this together for two decades. We wrote The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability in 1992 and Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things was published in 2002.

All this time, marvelous things have been happening. Hundreds of companies are adopting Cradle to Cradle-inspired approaches for product development and now even countries are advancing their policies based on being inspired by the concepts of biological and technical nutrition instead of the concept of waste. Years ago, when Cradle to Cradle was translated and published by the Chinese government and universities, we worked together and changed the subtitle "Remaking the Way We Make Things" from the English version to “The Design of the Circular Economy” for the Chinese version. The Circular Economy is now becoming the national policy in China. It has been wonderful to see how that has resonated in their culture and is being pursued elsewhere now. McKinsey & Co. and other groups are now using our language and our concepts too. We are happy to see the ideas spreading in so many ways; it's like watching your child grow.

Because Cradle to Cradle thinking applies at every scale, from countries and economies down all the way to molecules, perhaps the most exciting news is that we are now manifesting the Cradle to Cradle Certified program for products into a non-profit, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which will enable our protocol to become a public certification program and global standard. We believe this is the path to scaling up certification, which we think will continue to change the potential of human industry well beyond eco-efficiency and even “sustainability” to beneficial human footprints.

Great things take time, but they are exciting, hopeful, meaningful and add purpose and legacy to a human life. We are being careful and considerate in our work as a designer and a scientist. We have to integrate economic, social and environmental considerations with concerns about materials as nutrients, reverse logistics, renewable energy, clean water, and social fairness. This will always be about the concept of continuous improvement, continuous engagement, and framed within the understanding that we all require humility because the work of progress is, by its nature, a work in progress.

Maybe the most important thing we’ve been trying to do is change the conversation: move us away from “less bad” and toward “more good.” We are trying to redefine human industry for generations to come under a new, beneficial design strategy. It will take forever and it will take us all. But then, that’s the point."

William McDonough is a globally recognized leader in sustainable development. Trained as an architect, McDonough's interests and influence range widely, and he works at scales from the global to the molecular. Time magazine recognized him in 1999 as a "Hero for the Planet," stating that "his utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that-in demonstrable and practical ways-is changing the design of the world." McDonough is the architect of many of the recognized flagships of sustainable design, including the Ford Rouge truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan; the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College; and NASA's new "space station on Earth," Sustainability Base, completed in 2011. Read more.