Cradle To Cradle

Cradle to Cradle is one of the pioneering ideas of Circular Economy. What is Cradle To Cradle? Cradle To Cradle is a particular set of ideas and design practices for creating products that aim to reduce negative impact while striving to create a positive impact.

Cradle to Cradle was created by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and popularized by a book they wrote outlining the concept. The basic concept is that every material in product design and manufacturing should be chosen so that the material can be put right back into the world. Materials are either biodegradable or recyclable to create new products over and over again. Additionally, the cradle to cradle way of thinking encourages us to power all of our manufacturing, service companies and customer facing parts of our business with renewable energy. Why is that a big shift in thinking?

Product Development In Todays World

Depending on the company, products tend to be brought to the market maximizing and/or minimizing certain objectives. Companies aim to design market leading products and manufacture them for as cheaply as possible in order maximize their profit margins.  I’m obviously simplifying, but from my experience this covers the bare basics. Let’s use an example of the basic desktop printer to think about the current product design process and how we could change it with a shift in thinking towards cradle to cradle. If we are working on a new printer model for the coming year we will have certain objectives driven by marketing, company goals and financials. Let’s say that marketing has told us the new model has to have a certain look/styling and work faster. At the same time, the company has a goal of reducing the cost of each printer by 10%. So this printer needs to look different have new electronic hardware. To reach the cost reduction we may try to reduce material weight or negotiate with suppliers, which will force them to cut costs somewhere. All the while we want to have quality and customer satisfaction as high as possible. Overall we will likely focus on the objectives given from marketing and the company goals (new look and cost reduction), as things like warranty/quality and customer satisfaction tend to discovered after the product has launched. True to the standard printer business model, we still want customers buying new ink every 2 months and printers are notorious for planned obsolescence.

One Small Concern

The cradle to cradle philosophy asks for designers and companies to add one additional objective and in my opinion it doesn’t so much become about maximizing or minimizing something, in my opinion it approaches an absolute in product design. The concern is what happens to the product after it’s life is over. How is the product, disposed of, reclaimed, recycled or whatever the plan is, WHAT IS THE PLAN. Cradle to cradle at it’s heart asks us as product designers to have a plan for the end of life of a product. Additionally it demands that as designers and engineers we refuse to allow the product to simply be disposed of, it demands that we plan a new life for the materials of the product. This one small concern changes the entire structure of the product development process. So in addition to making great products that customers will love, maximizing profit, and maximizing the quality, every single materials within a product must be reclaimed in some way.

Back to our desktop printer example, what happens to it at the end of life. Best case scenario we take it to a big box store that recycles electronics or some other electronics recycling company, most likely scenario we put it in the trash. What if we had to care, or strived to care about the end of life of the printer. Several parts of our example would change apart from the materials we would use. Immediately the idea of planned obsolescence has to disappear. Printer technology is amazing, but it doesn’t change that much in 3-5 years. If we cared about end of life, we would give our products more life. Our printer might be designed to last over 10 years and maybe even be repairable instead of a throw-away device. Our choice of ink cartridges would also change, this consumable item would have value for what it is and we would refill these or reclaim them for creating remanufactured ink cartridges. We wouldn’t just hope that other companies do that to fill the void, but we would promote it and make it part of the plan.

Material Choice

A major component of product development is understanding the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), essentially the cost that it takes to make a product. This concept is important in understanding what drives the material choices. If you are a developing a product and you have a plastic case, do you choose plastic that is a proprietary blend made to be cheap and maximize the profit margin or do you choose a plastic that when recycled correctly is virtually infinitely recyclable? In the traditional process if both materials yield similar quality, the cheaper one is the choice. When you add in the “one small concern”, you choose the plastic that can be recycled and put right back into a new products at end of life. This puts the ownership on the designer and the company producing the product, which is an important aspect of the paradigm shift: Taking responsibility or ownership of the end of life plan.

Industrial Cycles

A key component of Cradle To Cradle is the idea of cycles. Materials can be categorized as being either in the biological cycle or technical cycle. The products and services we use should fall into one of these two cycles and the products make for a cycle should be able to continuously flow mimicking natures ability to follow cycles, think Lion King’s “The Circle of Life”. The Technical cycle is the easiest to understand in traditional product design, it is easy to think about the materials currently use and how they would circulate through the industrial cycle, metals, plastics, glass. Designers may not think about the biological cycle, but up until recent history the majority of products made were made with a naturally occurring materials, wood namely. Products made from wood and other natural materials can cycle through the biological cycle, these materials are biodegradable and break down into nutrients at the end of life, those nutrients help grow new plants that can be utilized in the process. For more in depth discussion on the biological and technical cycles please visit the posts on the Technical or Biologicalcycles.

Ownership of the Whole Process

Companies that care deeply about their customers and their customers experience with their product aim to control the product life cycle from design, manufacture and within the selling stage they carefully craft the customer experience with their sales and marketing team. During the use stage of the product the user experience is also extremely important as well as the customer service experience. For each of these touch points companies have departments and teams of people dedicated to maximizing the customer’s perception of the company and the product. Easy examples can be thought of with the major companies that we know and love. When we go into the Apple store, it is an amusement park of technology with clean lines and it drips in cool. Even Microsoft crafts a utilitarian image that highlights how useful their products are for businesses. The products these companies make are crafted to be quality products that bring the owners a sense of pride and joy in owning and using these companies products. However, companies tend to care little about the product when it is a few years old and out of warranty. These products get sold on the used market (which is certainly great, getting a second life use out of products extends there usefulness and minimizes certain negative impacts), they get sent to electronics recyclers and/or they get thrown away. In a cradle to cradle world, these companies will have a plan and even organize the reclamation of products and the materials they are made from.


Since the industrial revolution technical advancement has exploded and humans have reshaped the world and progressed to create the world we live in today. It is a world of plenty. However, there are many who believe that this progress has come at a cost. The things we consume and many of the products we use are single use or limited use items and when they are done they are disposed of never to be used again and the material they are made of will sit in a dump, useless, but present for many thousands of years. That is poor design and poor utilization of resources. Cradle to Cradle at it’s core is about good design, believing that utilization of resources is part of good design.  Design is at the heart of what humans do in the world, whether purposely or accidentally. Traditional design is all about form and function and little else. Good design is about form, function and how that product, the company that made it and the materials it is made from fit into the world.