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The cradle to cradle concept

If you happen to have classes in the Bronfman management building, you’ve probably noticed the chairs. They’re sleek, beautiful, and very, very comfortable. Not only that, but every component of the chairs is completely reusable. Each part of the chair can be easily detached – from the back to the foam inside the arm rests – and can either be recycled and fully reincorporated into the biosphere, or be remade into other products without loss of quality.

The chairs, along with many other products, were built according to a principle called “cradle to cradle,” a philosophy that aims to fundamentally challenge the relationship we have with Earth.

According to cradle to cradle design principles, everything produced should have a function, and for Michael Braungart, a Hamburg-based chemist, this represents an opportunity to design better and safer ways of living and consuming. “Right now, it’s only organic when we’re not involved,” he explained, “and this is pretty sad.”

Braungart is also a founding member of the Environmental Protection Enforcement Agency (EPEA) and of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a consulting and certification firm helping their diverse clients implement cradle to cradle design.

“The existing products are amazingly primitive when it comes to health and environment,” he said. “For example, we find in Mattel toys up to six-hundred problematic chemicals. Things are never designed for children, they’re only designed to be cheap. So we really need to reinvent everything.”

The book that Braungart co-authored with architect and designer William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, is an example of how regular, everyday items can be completely reinvented. The book itself does not contain any wood pulp or cotton fiber, instead it is made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers. It can be recycled in any facility with polypropylene recycling capabilities, and can be melted down and reused again and again, without losing any material quality.

Other examples of cradle to cradle product design include biodegradable apparel, non-toxic soaps, and tree-free, compostable food containers. The cradle to cradle concept, backed by McDonough and Braungart’s consulting firm, has even been applied to industries as large scale as building materials and packaging, helping negate their adverse impact on the planet.

But Braungart believes that sustainability is not the focus. “Sustainability is pretty boring. If I were to ask you if your relationship with your boyfriend is sustainable, and you said yes, I would feel sorry for you,” he said. “Sustainability is just the minimum, it’s not really attractive.” Braungart continued on to say that we should not be seeking to minimize our impact on the planet, but should instead contribute in a positive way. “Look at the cherry tree, there’s no reduction, no minimization, but everything is beneficial,” he elaborated.

With this in mind, MBDC developed an ice cream packaging that is liquid at room temperature. According to Braungart, the container is only solid when frozen. “You can just throw it away,” he said. “We put seeds of rare plants in it, so by throwing it away you can support biodiversity, and the packaging degrades within two to three hours.”

“The most critical thing is to romanticize nature,” he said. And when consumption becomes beneficial to the planet, there is no more need to minimize what we consume. “I think littering is fun,” Braungart added.

This proposed paradigm shift is slow to be adopted. “What is most challenging is that people have been trying to be less bad for so long, now it’s difficult for them to change,” adds Braungart. “[Cradle to cradle] is not only technical questions and product design questions, it’s really how humans see their role on the planet. This is really key.”

And though it seems almost utopian in nature, the cradle to cradle concept has had its fair share of criticism. The MBDC consulting firm, and McDonough in particular, have been heavily criticized for their tendency toward proprietorship. In an industry where collaboration and expansion should be the primary focus, “cradle to cradle” is a patented term. Other aspects of the business are also under heavy lock and key: this has significantly decreased the concept’s potential impact.

In its 15 years of operation, MBDC has only certified 160 products. Many of the projects undertaken never see the light of day. Several have a history of going over budget, underperforming, and never living up to their cradle to cradle claims.

Journalist Danielle Sacks wrote a 2008 expose on McDonough for the magazine Fast Company that “McDonough’s design revolution is paralyzed – and he is the paralyzing agent, unable to capitalize on his brilliant, crucial idea, but unwilling to set it free,” and this is shown by the litigious trail the cradle to cradle concept has left behind.

Critics have also argued that MBDC’s work lacks transparency. Sacks wrote that because the firm “sometimes consults for companies whose products [it’s] also certifying, the whole endeavour is conflicted, if not unethical.”

Overall, however, Braungart is optimistic about cradle to cradle’s future. “A lot of major players are really changing how they do business, [and are] making products according to cradle to cradle principles,” he said. “It’s just amazing, there are hundreds and hundreds of young scientists, engineers, and designers there to reinvent products.”

But though he feels that there are positive steps being taken, “I’m skeptical when I see how fast the destruction takes place, and I wonder whether [the changes] will be in time.” If those who want to pursue cradle to cradle goals can do so without fear of litigation, maybe they will be.