The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance

Excerpt from The Upcycle, the eagerly awaited follow-up to Cradle to Cradle

Imagine you are sitting in the top-floor boardroom of a major United States consumer products company and you are meeting one-on-one with the company’s executive in charge of sustainability. You have been to this facility many, many times before. Over seven years, you have met with executives in charge of finance, supply chains, manufacturing, product design, research and development, and marketing. Hundreds of meetings to listen, to learn, and to explore your new concepts for sustainable growth and beneficial innovation. Together, you and the executive have shared data—lots of data. You know big-picture business issues facing this company and detailed chemistries of the products. You even know how many light bulbs are used to illuminate the enterprise worldwide, how much energy that consumes, how many light bulbs contain mercury, and how many people it takes to change a light bulb and what that costs…. Outside the giant plate-glass windows, tall granite-clad skyscrapers stand proudly in the sunshine. The Brazilian mahogany table is polished to a shine, and the high-backed leather chairs remind you of the important executive decisions made in this room, which can affect the lives of millions of people—for better or for worse. One might say you are here chasing the butterfly effect. Given the scale of this company, one small decision has the power to make a real difference for the economy, for people, and for the planet.

That is one reason you are here—scale. But you are also here for another reason—velocity. Many of the largest corporate enterprises in the world have come to realize the downside of the butterfly effect, the repercussions of modern business that are obviously damaging and too often unaccounted for—famously called externalities, such as carbon in the atmosphere, toxic materials, poisoned rivers, lost rain forests, and so on, with no end of this decline in sight. Many businesspeople realize this is not good business. They like to know what they are doing and to be able to account for it, but they feel like they are driving a car without a gas gauge or even, shall we say, a battery charge indicator? It makes them nervous. They also are like Olympic athletes who want to be on a safe, level playing field and who do not want to be left behind. They want to lead. You might just ask this executive friend, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could commit not just to reducing your carbon emissions but to being 100 percent renewably powered? Couldn’t we find a way to make such a statement?” The executive pushes the question aside. “We can’t do that,” he says. “No matter how much we would like to declare ourselves that way. Look, we could only get a small percentage of our power for our factories from solar on our roofs.

We and everyone else have been saying we’ll cut our carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020. Isn’t that enough? Because of the nature of business, we have to be conservative and risk averse. We can only describe actual performance goals that are realistic. How in the world can we say we are going to seek renewable energy for our entire global enterprise? Consumers don’t care and environmentalists won’t trust us, or if we launch the initiative piecemeal—which is the only way we could—the public awareness of the issue will become a point of concern for all the other products made by the company.

For example, if we say these plants are renewably powered, it will raise the question of ‘Why not the other ones?’ and it’s a big, long job getting there. Our shareholders will think we’ve lost sight of our revenue and profit goals.” “What if you just state your intention?” you suggest. “Say, ‘We will be renewably powered as soon as it is cost-effective, and we will constantly seek it out.’ Any shareholder can understand that plan. It’s true, and declaring your intention does the heavy lifting of getting people in the company to get moving in this direction. You’ve charted the goal. You’ll track your progress and report it. You’ll unleash the creativity and genius of your people in a clear, clean direction. You’ve made them want to search for the renewable power solution every time they go looking to supply a kilowatt-hour. It lets other industries know that if they can manufacture the solar panels or wind turbines or biogas collectors at a competitive price point, they will have a customer in you. And you, their customer, are likely to lead to other major customers. Before you know it, the renewable power industries are growing technologies and jobs in a businesslike way all across the United States, around the world. Your intention itself is powerful.”  “Okay, I get it,” the executive says. “I’ll put this in terms the business will understand and take this to the CEO.” This story actually happened.

We didn’t have to look far to see how this was just one executive in this mammoth company, against the endless horizon of people in offices outside the plate-glass windows. This was one person, but this person could take a message to the leadership that would launch innovation as inspired as sending a person to the moon. In a few short months, the company announced it would pursue the goal of being renewably powered. All kinds of marvelous innovation busted loose within days. Factory managers started calling, saying, ‘Can I go first?’ ‘What can I do to get on board?’ Velocity. We tell this story without names for two reasons. The first is that this is not a unique story and the point of telling it is to focus on and celebrate the power of intentionality. We know that everyone—consumers, manufacturers, government leaders—is interested in a cleaner, healthier world. Many companies with whom we work are delighted to embark on creating a renewable energy base. They would also love to make their products with only fully defined healthful materials.

But society has factionalized to become so mutually suspicious that often consumers and customers don’t think companies want the same positive healthful future they want, and companies think critics will pounce on them if they even lift their heads to break out of the norm to say, “We want to try. We are trying. We have embarked on the work of being renewable or pursuing only clean production or fully healthful products, but we have more work to do.” We hope [our book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance], if nothing else, will inspire you to start and will cheer you on. We believe in constant improvement. Sometimes you can’t do it. It doesn’t work. Fine. Try another way. Do it again and again. Restate your intention. Watch what happens.

Secondly, we tell this story without names because we want you to see yourself as both of these individuals in the conference room. All it took was one advocate and one executive to craft a strategy and to move it toward the head of the company, and an entire international corporation was changed. That person could be you in your job, your daily life. When we say, “start,” we also want you to start thinking of yourself as a potential leader. As a person who changed his or her company, home, country for a better, more beneficial future. [We wrote our book] for you. We hope to encourage and inspire you with the how and why of creating a more abundant, joyful world for future generations. A decade ago, we—Bill, an architect, and Michael, a chemist—published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. We had come across an idea in our design and chemistry work that we considered extraordinarily exciting. Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure. This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief. The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this: Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.” Use less energy. Poison less. Cut down fewer trees.

According to these current “best practices,” all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily—bottles, paper—and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more. But then where does this product go? Into a landfill? An incinerator? That might not be so bad if the product were well designed from the first. It could become a nutrient in the biosphere. Or stay in the technosphere—as a reusable metal or plastic—instead of contaminating the biosphere, the entire ecosystem. This project, as big as it sounds, is obviously not impossible: Nature itself designs this way. But as modern engineers and designers commonly create a product now, the item is designed only for its first use, not its potential next uses after it breaks, or grows threadbare, or goes out of fashion, or crumbles. The item works its way from one downward cycle to another, becoming less valuable (think a food-grade plastic bottle smashed down, re-melted with other plastics, and made into a speed bump) or more toxic (such as wood turned into a composite board made of formaldehyde-based glues). It seems that what humans make is detritus, frequently toxic. We believe there is a different perspective. The problem is not with humans per se, but with what they have in the last 5,000 years, and especially in the last 150 years, fashioned. When the Industrial Revolution manifested itself, people wanted simply to keep supply as high as demand, and as they did so, thinking grew frantic. Designers and manufacturers grasped for the next best short-term idea that came along, not necessarily informed by long-term considerations. Humans have obviously gained a great deal from that revolution, but society can’t stay on that path. Everyone now knows how human beings are contaminating the biosphere, but another troubling possibility has emerged: Humans will run short on easily accessible, clean biological and technical materials from which to build and create a beneficial civilization.

Not long after our first meeting, we were asked to create design principles for the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover, Germany, the theme of which was humanity, nature, and technology. So many people saw doom-and-gloom scenarios. We wanted the participants to focus not just on the aesthetics, efficiency, and utility of their designs but on the holistic quality and beauty of their design intentions, their relationship to the future and to far-flung places. The Hannover Principles were publicly presented in 1992, and they guide our work and thinking today: 1. Insist on the right of humanity and nature to coexist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition. 2. Recognize interdependence. 3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. 4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human wellbeing, the viability of natural systems, and their right to coexist. 5. Create safe objects of long-term value. 6. Eliminate the concept of waste. 7. Rely on natural energy flows. 8. Understand the limitations of design. 9. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Ten years after we articulated those principles, we wrote Cradle to Cradle, in which we further described how they could be put into practice. The book ranged across many design topics but focused primarily on products. Which brings us to today, to this moment. [Our new book] The Upcycle asks you to…. begin re-strategizing the design of our society as a whole. If our work over the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that not just designers, not just architects or scientists have important ideas to contribute. To fashion a Cradle to Cradle world, we need everyone—the mothers, the fathers, the children, the teachers, the business executives, the politicians, the homemakers, the factory workers, the store owners, the customers, and so on—everyone. …we want you to consider design on all scales, from something as small as elemental carbon to something as big as the future; from something as basic as soil to something as extravagant as caviar; from not only how we design our world but how we power it. This is upcycling: taking Cradle to Cradle and applying it not just to how people design a carpet but how they design a home, a workplace, an industry, a city. Using the Cradle to Cradle framework, we can upcycle to talk about designing not just for health but for abundance, proliferation, delight. We can upcycle to talk about not how human industry can be just “less bad,” but how it can be more good, an extraordinary positive in our world.

Start Where You Are Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars. Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. Now, Think. —Hildegard of Bingen When we came up with the goal statement for…The Upcycle, we did just as Hildegard, the 12th-century philosopher, theologian, and naturalist, advised. The two of us were tucked away with friends in a lodge in the northwest of Iceland, and as we worked on the wording of the statement, we looked around at the landscape and thought about what we saw: a wall of volcanic rock that the sun, burning low behind us, polished to burnt umber. A river, delightfully dense with Atlantic salmon, Arctic char, and trout, extending on either side. To our east, a green valley winding for miles toward the island’s central glaciers. To our west, odd, imposing 50-foot-tall conical hummocks rising toward the sky with the silvery Arctic Ocean beyond. This span of unique, diverse details awed us and reaffirmed the huge scale and intricate specificity of our creative challenge: to contribute our part to the bounty already present in the world and to humbly remember the mutability of even huge landscapes. Iceland had been forested in ancient times, and now the only trees in our view were those behind fences, protected by the farmers from the free-ranging sheep. The sentence we came up with for our goal statement conveyed not how Cradle to Cradle worked, as we had described in the first book, but why it existed—which felt right to us, since the inspiration for Cradle to Cradle had always been the world we could help achieve, i.e., the upcycle of our daily work. It goes like this: The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power—economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed. Why so many words? …. We wanted to honor and acknowledge everything the world can be and have within it if Cradle to Cradle design were truly to take hold. No limits. Instead, abundance: diverse, safe, healthy, clean, enjoyed. The upcycle is the opportunity to measure and develop the tools needed to meet this goal. It is important to realize this is always about constant movement and there is no finish line—no endgame. Before we go on, though, we want to talk a bit about how we work. As we have said, we are fascinated by and excited about the atomic magic that can be engaged in the laboratory when inventing new ways to re-fabricate man-made products.

But much of our work too involves recasting the very language society uses to define its challenges. Let’s take a simple example: Cradle to Cradle. The first time you see that term, it might seem odd. Perhaps you might not even immediately grasp the meaning. But as it is repeated, that term can shift the very framework of how you think about objects….Why do people even think of products as living things that go from cradle to grave? We know there is no grave; there are landfills or incinerators, where the product’s components persist as debris, gases, and runoff and are lost for good. Oops. Why have I accepted the idea of lifetime warranties for so long, when I should consider the need for a warranty after the “life”? Why is the manufacturer not warranting that its product will be beneficial to the biosphere after the product’s “death”? By the time you have read the term Cradle to Cradle several times, you are in the headspace we would like you to occupy: questioning false beliefs. Free to imagine innovative solutions. Expecting more from industry, society, and yourself… ….words can be “terms of art” with extremely specific meanings. We do not just talk, for example, about life-cycle assessments. We talk about defined biological and technical cycles (which we are about to describe for you). We want Cradle to Cradle to be an aspirational term, leading to constant improvement of a product or systems. So when you see a strange term we are coining, let it first open your thinking and then help you be more precise in what you expect from design strategies. With that hope, we will now run you through a few key concepts from Cradle to Cradle so we are working with the same basic lexicon from the beginning. Let’s start with those biological and technical food chains.

Why We See Abundance One of the most important concepts in Cradle to Cradle is that materials can be designed to differentiate between the biosphere and technosphere and become nutrients forever. For example, the “waste” of an animal becomes nutrition for microbes, fungi, plants, trees, reptiles, mammals, and so on, perhaps even food for humans. This is a simple example of a biological nutrient cycle. The term “technical nutrients,” which we believe we coined, includes metals, plastics, and other materials not continuously created by the biosphere. Instead of these products becoming waste in a landfill, they could become “food” for another product, and that product would also become “food” again—endlessly. To translate this to everyday use, think of juice boxes, the type of cartons used for many of the beverages people consume today. A typical juice box is an amalgam of aluminum, plastics, and raw paper that cannot easily be recycled (a very specialized and rare facility is required to separate them and re-form the material). Aluminum alone—a technical nutrient—can be recycled again and again at the same level of value, as long as it is pure. But if you add cardboard and plastics, you weaken the technical-nutrient quality of aluminum. The biological nutrient of the cardboard is tainted by the combination with aluminum. And what do you end up with? Mountains of suboptimal packaging in the dump or the incinerator. The precious aluminum is lost to its potential endless high-value cycle. The soil and air and water are contaminated. We call this conventional design “cradle to grave.” It aims at only one use, period, after which the product and its materials are discarded, thrown away. But of course “away” can cause contamination of the biosphere. As Bill said many years ago, “Away has gone away.” On top of that, society today wastes the potential benefit of these marvelous nutrients—all the useful products that they could become.

A “Regulation” Means “Here Is Something to Be Redesigned” Where do we find the places to start rethinking our contributions, the opportunities to offer redesigns? Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book about the effect of pesticides on the environment and particularly on songbirds, is credited with helping launch the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson’s lyrical, sorrowful homage to the diminishing diversity of the natural world — she imagined a world in which songbirds, frogs, and insects had disappeared—was a wake-up call to the seriousness of the design problem in pesticides. It spurred new thinking about how humans interact with nature. Yet although regulations are obviously a valuable signal of concern by society—even vital at certain moments in human history— we can also consider them at some point to be alerts to design failures. Or, to put it more positively, signs of design opportunities. ….The same goes for products with warning labels: A colleague of Michael’s who recently moved to Germany told him that when she brought home her brand-new toaster, a warning label in the box stated that the toaster should be turned on a few times and allowed to heat up fully to burn off the coatings on the wires. The label asserted that the strange odors coming from the toaster at the beginning were normal and harmless—but that it should nevertheless be used in a well-ventilated area. Now, is that good design? If a product were crafted to be healthful from the start, having more of it in the world would simply mean thriving businesses and satisfied customers. No one—not a businessperson, not an environmentalist—would want to stifle the product’s creation, distribution, or consumption (or put it in a well-ventilated area). Regulations and warnings say, in other words: This thing exists, but it would be best for the health of humans and the planet if it did not. But, given that it does exist, here’s how to minimize, though not eliminate, its awful effects. When we realize the price we pay for careless design, it’s clear that society might shift its thinking to consider good design not simply a luxury for the wealthy but a fundamental human right for everyone. The Declaration of Independence declares that human beings are born with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The United Nations has declared clean water and sanitation a human right. These things cannot exist without well-intentioned design. Designers do not have the right to inflict suboptimal design on all of us. Design is the first signal of human intention, and who would intend, who would purposefully set out, to design a system that pollutes our air, our water, our mother’s milk with harmful chemicals?

Less Bad Is No Good ….Recently, the scientific director at Michael’s Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency bought a name-brand juicer and was excited about having fresh homemade juice daily. To her dismay, when she made her first glass of juice, it tasted of chemicals. The Hamburg Umweltinstitut sent the juicer to a laboratory to test the level of off gassing. The rates were shockingly high—more shocking, however, was that the juicer’s off-gassing level was still within the legal range (up to 10 milligrams per square centimeter). That’s an awfully good example of how eco-efficiency—setting a metric of tolerable levels of a gas—is simply not sufficient for positive design. Eco-efficiency might also seek to curtail consumption: water use, for example. But that consumption limitation is premised on the notion that we live only in a world of scarcity and limit, that the ecological world is insufficient for the world of human activities and industries. This is just not true. Here’s one simple example: Many people enjoy taking long, hot showers. In most households, when the water runs too long, one might assume that water and money and energy are being wasted. But if the water in one’s house or hotel is filtered, re-circulated, and solar-heated, people can luxuriously shower guilt-free for as long as they like. No one is worried that he or she needs to waste less water, energy, or money. The system is less—but it’s more. The design is optimized around human nature and pleasure. It is purely beneficial and positive. That is eco-effective. That is our goal. Since the publication of Cradle to Cradle 11 years ago, we have expanded our ideas, putting them into practice, understanding the obstacles to their adaptation, and trying to inch closer to a better-designed world. Back then we only believed that such a world was possible. Now we have seen it becoming reality. We’ve seen a great deal in innovation. We understand whole new subtleties. And we want to tell you what has worked. Cradle to Cradle, the book itself, was designed as a technical nutrient (and not, as some erroneously assumed, to be composted as a biological nutrient). It was made of waterproof synthetic fibers, inorganic fillers, and soy-based inks to be recycled as another synthetic paper product. It was not compostable by design. It signaled our intention to design for a human industry without waste, and it forwarded a strategy of hope. The book did seem to inspire hope.

But there has been one common reaction: Call it enchanted skepticism, or engaged self-doubt. Many readers have felt that the articulation of a design framework for unique nutrient cycles—biological and technical—is a beautiful discovery. It’s logical and even just great common sense. But how can an individual use this knowledge to make a better world? How can I take action? How can I, the small-business owner, embrace these concepts and still be competitive in the marketplace? How can I, the customer, get companies to make such products? How can I, the CEO or business executive, design and implement such a systemic overhaul and still meet customer demand and quarterly earning expectations—and how do I convince the board to go for it? [The Upcycle] attempts to answer those questions. Since its publication, we have been delighted by the number of people who have worked to put Cradle to Cradle into practice in their own work. We have also come to realize just how ambitious our ideas were. At that time, few people had concocted the clean chemicals, devised the perfect joinery, or created the right dyes. Our job in many respects was and is to make that world exist, so other people will see that the larger vision is possible, plausible. When people buy a gorgeous fabric, for example, that during its manufacture left the water running out of the factory cleaner than the water flowing in, it gives them license to set similar goals. The aftereffects of the projects we took on turned out to be larger than we dreamed.

We have been astounded by the enthusiasm and the profitability that accompany taking up this thinking. Government regulations drop away when there are no ill effects to minimize. Cradle to Cradle designers and manufacturers know that they are engaged in what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” a way of making a living within the framework of right behavior that allows them to happily present themselves to their children. We are now convinced that people can do this. We have done this, and we work with major corporations and institutions to do this. Some of the world’s largest companies became pioneering early integrators of Cradle to Cradle ideas, including Steelcase and Herman Miller, the international furniture manufacturers; Berkshire Hathaway’s Shaw Industries, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer; Ford, the iconic American car company; Cherokee, the environmental investment fund; and China’s Goodbaby. In the past decade alone, we have helped hundreds of forward-thinking enterprises, from Aveda and Method to Construction Specialties, Delta Development Group, Desso, Gessner A6, Puma, and Royal Mosa, to name just a few. Many of our partners have made company-wide commitments to Cradle to Cradle principles. The ideas have proven vital not only to businesses but to governmental agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and communities in the United States, the EU, and Asia… Too many organizations and individuals have begun to upcycle to list here, but we feel it is worth underlining the widespread possibilities that come with Cradle to Cradle.

So our question is: Why don’t you join us? Our ideas may sound at times optimistic, even quixotic (we definitely want you to have fun expanding your thinking as you read), but we are working in the real world, with clients who are putting these ideas to tremendous effect every day. All these companies have visionaries on staff courageous enough to rethink the design of their products and systems so we can move closer to a Cradle to Cradle world. If they can do it, and enjoy the profitability, then you can too. It’s time to put away the scolding tone in urging industry toward more environmental thinking. We almost never find a CEO who doesn’t want to make the company’s product a known good in the world. The business community is interested in health and abundance. What most corporate leaders need is not chastisement but customers, encouragement, and support. We tell them: We now know how to make your product healthy and safe for the environment. We now know you can power with solar, wind, and other renewables. We will work together to get you the best technical nutrients coming out of other cycles into your factory. We understand that change might happen gradually, like the hatching of a butterfly. It might not happen in a flash. But it is happening. We can feel it all over the world. From the solar-powered campus of Google, to the roof farms of Brooklyn, to the phosphate reclamation in sewage treatment plants in the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere . . . we are watching the revolution unfold like a butterfly’s wings. From the beginning, Cradle to Cradle has honored commerce as the engine of growth and innovation, as the way to make the planet far more productive than it is right now. Suboptimal design cuts revenue and keeps businesses from being as profitable as they could be due to losses—in materials, in energy, and even in worker and customer health and enjoyment. Cradle to Cradle thinking can be business’s innovation engine..…Building on the ideas in Cradle to Cradle, we want to show you how people can move from being “less bad” to becoming part of the natural cycle of regeneration on the planet. We can be overtly good. We can finally enjoy our full human dignity. We can celebrate the unique and fruitful role we possess in perpetuating the biological system. We can proliferate. We can create more magical objects. And we can, in fact, enjoy the satisfaction that a tree, a bee, the sun enjoys: While I exist, I make this world more fruitful. Cradle to Cradle is a grounding and coherent foundation, the fulcrum against which we can lean our levers of desirable change. …The Upcycle, is an update and a collection of observations, evocations, and stories of continued improvement to be discovered the way the butterfly finds flowers in the garden. To us, upcycling is the most exciting project of all. It’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.

Excerpted from THE UPCYCLE: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY—DESIGNING FOR ABUNDANCE by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published in April 2013 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. All rights reserved.

Recent Viewpoints