Book Review: Cradle to Cradle

April 2008

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is the kind of book that inclines the reader to write his own thoughts in the margins. I opted for a more electronic medium - which was good, considering that the book itself, in keeping with the authors’ principles of durable, reusable (not ‘recyclable’, which they call ‘downcyclable’) materials, is printed on a kind of synthetic glossy paper that doesn’t seem to lend itself to such scribblings. Ironic, perhaps, but who said notes had to be taken like that in the first place?

The basic principle of the book is that current processes for manufacturing things are completely out of step with what we know about the world around us. We know that many materials cannot be reused safely or broken down effectively, and yet we continue to follow such processes and buy things created by them because it is so easy to just throw something “away” after we have finished with it. We never have to think about the consequences of throwing something “away,” whether it be the wasted resources or the outright danger of the materials in the first place.

Instead of our current processes, the authors instead advocate for products that are designed with their entire lifecycles in mind - from cradle to cradle.

The idea that really inspired me most (but which the authors really didn’t devote all that much time to) was the concept of service-based use. It flies in the face of the current model but really makes a lot of sense. When someone buys something, a toaster for example, he is not actually interested in the materials in the toaster but rather the service that the toaster provides. After the toaster has passed the point where it is useful (it breaks, the buyer no longer likes toast, the buyer wants a better toaster), the purchaser’s plan is pretty much just to throw it out.

The purchaser has no incentive to find a toaster that is designed such that after its period of usefulness, the materials used in the toaster are still useful or valuable. He’s throwing the thing out anyway, and it wouldn’t make sense for the user of the toaster to be specialized to the point where he can make use of what he currently discards.

However, if he leases the toaster, (sounds odd, but bear with me) then the manufacturer of the toaster gets the toaster (and the raw materials) back at the end of its usefulness cycle. Now there is an incentive for the design to be one that maximizes the value of whatever materials are left over at the end of the cycle.

Kind of makes one feel good about renting car all the time, or about a system like ZipCar. But even that system/process wouldn’t cut the mustard with the authors - after all, it’s not like the rental car company would do anything different with the car after it breaks down than I would if I owned it myself. The authors would instead recommend a system where the car manufacturer gets the car back after it is no longer usable or wanted, again, so that there would be an incentive to design things well.

There are several other interesting points that the authors make about diversity, negative costs, and evolution-inspired design - but I won’t give the game away; or, as Levar Burton would say:

“You don’t have to take my word for it!”