Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Design

When discussing current design practices, “Efficiency” is one of the first and most common concepts mentioned.  Few people think past the surface of saying design should be “efficient,” whatever that means.  The underlying assumption in saying you’re making a design more efficient, is that it’s current system is correct, and now it just needs optimization.  But can you truly say that is the case for something like the auto or construction industry?  Is making your car able to achieve 40mpg vs it’s current 25mpg the right solution?  Is it even the right question?  Shouldn’t we instead be asking why your car still needs to run on gasoline?  William McDonough and Michael Braungart set out to change the way people see design, framing it in a global, connected context.

Quick sidenote: Bill Mcdonough was featured in this episode (9:30-16:20 mark) of the PBS series design: e2.  I highly recommend the series to anyone with even a passing interest in design (and especially those who are unfamiliar with the idea of ecological design).

In the system we all know, you buy a product.  This product is wrapped in packaging that is immediately thrown out.  The product itself runs its course, usually one of planned obsolescence, and is typically thrown out as well.  Then its replacement is purchased.  Little regard is given for the toxic content of its ingredients.  Plastics and styrofoam packing unable to decompose litter the landscape, while the product itself can physically degrade during use, dispensing even more chemicals and particulate into the environment.  The product can contain any number of toxic, hazardous chemicals, dyes and materials.  The factory this product was made in most likely was constructed by razing the local landscape, built with no regard for or adaptability to the surrounding environment.  Consider clothing or carpet manufacturing, where the leftover scraps from production can be labeled as hazardous, but not the finished product itself.  Or any electronic device, full of harsh chemicals and heavy metals, tossed into the garbage without a second thought.  Even when you recycle something, it is more often than not being “downcycled” – used in a lessor form, because it cannot sustain its structural integrity to be reused for the same purpose.  Plastic bottles are repurposed as park benches, not as new plastic bottles.  They lose their technical qualities over time, eventually to nothing.  This “cradle to grave” approach isn’t one that will work for our world.

Nothing in nature functions in this manner.  Everything in nature has a calculated purchase, giving energy back to the system it takes from, and usually more. Instead of using brute force to “overcome” nature, we need to harness its power.  Some intelligent design and foresight can remove the need for excessive heating and cooling by using physics and natural air flows.  Naturally occurring plants and animals can filter water better, easier, and cheaper, than a treatment plant laden with chemicals.  By changing the way we look at design in all facets, products can be made to, upon completion of their useful life, be fully reused.  Parts of the product can be made to return as biological ingredients through decomposition, while the others can return to the production process as technical ingredients.  When companies know products going out the door will eventually return as raw materials to go back into the cycle, it works as an ecological and economic benefit.  The idea of designing for “cradle to cradle,” to ensure products are reused for their intended purpose is a long and complicated one, but one that is especially important.  Blatant disregard for natural resources and landscapes is not sustainable for this world.  By thinking in a long-term scope instead of looking for a profitable quarter, we will begin to ask smarter questions, and make smarter decisions to develop ecologically sustainable, and economically viable systems.  With so many in ITP involved in product creation and various forms of design, we need to be conscious of the decisions we make, from idea generation through final iterations.  What is your product made of?  What does it take in, and what does it give back?  One-way relationships are not sustainable in nature, nor are they sustainable in the ITP community.  So why would they work for the design of our lives?