Untying Cradle to Cradle

Untying Cradle to Cradl: Towards an Open Source Sharing Model for Unrestricted Use
Aetzel Griffioen

During the last year the Dutch have seen the rise of Cradle to Cradle (C2C). It appears that after Al Gore’s startling message, William McDonough and Michael Braungart have given ecologically concerned Holland a concept to work with. Their slogan ‘Waste Equals Food’ has fast won over major politicians and captains of industry as well as environmentalists from many different camps. But is C2C really the concept to successfully balance ecology and economy? Although it promises to do away with the problem of scarcity, one likely consequence is a severe restriction of the use of raw materials, as well as of the knowledge necessary to make C2C work. For these reasons an open source approach to ecology is urgently needed.1

“It is a question of social structures and social contradictions, not a question of illness or deficient metabolism.” Jean Aubert and Jean Beaudrillard

Nutritious waste

Between themselves architect William McDonough and former head of Greenpeace’s chemistry department Michael Braungart can design anything from the smallest molecule up to the largest city. And with McDonough’s architecture firm, Braungart’s Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) and their company McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, redesigning everything is what they intend to do. Copying nature and its endless cycle of life, they claim that recasting human production from a linear into a circular model is all it takes to end our environ – mental troubles. Hence the introduction of two separate spheres in the production process: the biosphere and the technosphere. On the premise that in nature all products of life – living things, seeds, excretion and corpses – feed other life in ecosystems with an endless number of niches, they want to reform industry so that all its products – industrial and consumer goods, gasses, effluents and waste – are used as food for other products. All products of industry become either biological or technical nutrients. As in nature – where “the very concept of waste does not exist”2 – so in industry: waste should equal food.

Beyond sustainability

Bringing that to fruition will require a lot of work. To show how much, a large part of C2C is dedicated to a firm rebuttal of the environmentalist movement. Because while decades’ worth of sustainability policies seeking to “reduce, avoid, minimize… limit, [and] halt”3 environmental destruction may have lessened its other – wise even greater impact, an unwanted consequence of trying to be ‘less bad’ has been to render the pollution that slips through much “harder to detect and thus harder to stop.”4 Therefore C2C does not attempt to limit industry but instead proposes a total overhaul of the production process, asking: “What would it mean to be 100 percent good?”5 The answer lies in the phased redesign of all product lines. With all processes refit to take place “under the sun”,6 the first step is to eliminate any known toxins a product contains. This is followed by an analysis of the other materials involved to see if there are any unknown health hazards present that should be phased out. Only after that is the product redesigned for continuous reuse in the technosphere or biosphere. Thus they replace the sustainable approach with a purely positive one since maintaining “materials in closed loops maximizes material value without damaging ecosystems.”7

Ecology and economy equated

Their identification of the failure of regulation and old style environmentalism to control environmental destruction has put McDonough and Braungart in pole position to remedy the problem. And since working against the industry has not stopped pollution, they have chosen to employ their method together with industry as a design, advisory and marketing company. Upon closer inspection, however, the full C2C program may require a much greater overhaul than industry is prepared to make. McDonough and Braungart also have a final stage for the redesign of a product in mind. This stage entails rethinking the entire product in an attempt to “fulfill human needs in an evolving technical and cultural context”.8 To that end C2C design should always “celebrate … the commonweal in which it is rooted”9 by focusing on the question “What is the right thing for this place?”10 If we reformulate this negatively we see that McDonough and Braungart’s method is in tension with their practice: while they try to go beyond sustainability approaches, they are also waging war on market generated desire. Furthermore, they stress the importance of locality by declaring their opposition to the famous Koolhaasian theme of genericity which they portray as a “bland, uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy, and material flows.”11 When I asked Braungart about this he answered that he does indeed envision a new world in which we will live “a much more local life, a sort of regionalism.”12 While desirable from an ecological point of view, it remains to be seen if big clients like Nike and Ford will want to go that far.

Champion of industry

Meanwhile C2C has succeeded in working with these and other big companies and that has everything to do with the message. Contrary to the environmentalists who demand less economic activity, they say – with some authority, as former environmentalists who have seen the light – that growth is not a bad thing per se as long as it is “good growth”13 derived from “healthy prosperity”.14 What’s more, they can deliver this healthy way of doing business too. But the coup de grâce is that eliminating waste through superior design also means saving money. After all, where there is no waste, there is no need to clean up. This message, combined with McDonough and Braungart’s way with slogans, has enabled them to become the brand name for supersustainability. Yet while their successful marketing strategy has given C2C the right boost to take up the position of effective industry reformer, C2C has also become its champion. Claiming to have the key to good or healthy practice may turn out for the worst if it remains an empty notion.

Health defined

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has stated that McDonough and Braungart never provide quantitative analyses or definitions of key concepts.15 Instead they let different, widely varying interpretations coexist making it easier to approach companies in dire need of reform, but simultaneously watering down their demands to the point where clients will still accept them. To resolve the tension between the marketing-minded McDonough and Braungart who even rant against government regulation16 and their method of supersustainability with its stress on the local and focus on needs, we turn to the work of Gregory Bateson. He also stressed the need to find a solution in which all parts of society work together and has a definition of a ‘healthy ecology of human civilization’ that fits the bill quite well: “A single system of environment combined with high human civilization in which the flexibility of the civilization shall match that of the environment to create an ongoing complex system, open-ended for slow change of even basic (hard-programmed) characteristics.”17 According to Bateson a healthy ecology has to do with people, rather than only with nature. And as we shall see this is precisely the aspect of C2C that has so far remained underdeveloped.

Knowledge and change

Most importantly, civilization has to have the capacity to deal with the gradual change of the complex of interconnected parameters we call the environment. When change can no longer be tolerated a system breaks down. Bateson likens the environmental system to a tightrope acrobat who needs to be able to exert maximum flexibility with his arms to remain in stable motion on the rope.18 Thus while keeping his balance he is not stagnant, but moves from one pole to the other. Similarly, when dealing with humanity’s attempts to cope with environmental change, the level of human social and scientific development becomes a special parameter because only knowledge, its dissemination and information flows will permit humans to find a balance with their environment. Only when they function optimally can humanity create the necessary feedback loops, like the acrobat who continuously uses his arms to maintain his balance on the unstable wire.

Limits to extraction

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency also criticizes C2C for its failure to comply with ‘systemic limits’. Reformulated according to Bateson’s idea, this indicates that C2C does not take into account the maximum stress certain parameters of the system can tolerate. Although the assessment aims at mostly technical limits to the endlessness C2C presumes – like the availability of a maximum amount of space for composting or the maximum quantity of foodstuffs to be used in industry without causing starvation – I would now like to extend the notion of systemic limits to a maximum amount of stress people can bear. In order to do this a revaluation of the concept of waste is in order.

Different forms of waste

If C2C always saved companies money, everyone would naturally adopt it. However at the first Let’s Cradle conference the economist Roefie Hueting showed how costs for environmental and social degradation are usually never covered by corporations. In fact, he portrayed how, should these costs be included in the GNI, GNIs worldwide would halve.19 This fact shows how pollution cannot be included in the economy of today. The only thing that counts is growth and ‘externalizing’ costs makes up a great part of big business’ profit.20 Furthermore, the precarious nature of much labor reminds us that capitalism not only extracts value from nature, but also from people’s capacity to work. Economically speaking, McDonough and Braungart are therefore right to disregard overpopulation concerns,21 but they are wrong to neglect the creation of surplus labor. Waste, therefore, does not only have to be material polluting the natural environment, but can also be human, causing among other things unemployment, poverty, isolation and powerlessness.22 Where in earlier times the labor surplus generated by the profit-driven economy could be reinvested by shipping the human waste (i.e., people) overseas to the colonies, nowadays that is no longer a viable option. For us waste, whether material or human, has becomes an inescapable problem left for society to clean up – or to deal with in another way.23

Property control

While C2C redevelops the production process, and does so very well, production is not the entire picture. In the experience economy, it is no longer the labor added to natural resources that primarily determines the value of a product, but the idea, the experience or the identity for which a product stands.24 Because C2C is so good at making slogans and ideas, at creating an experience, it is actually not adopted by the big market players as a better production process, but as a completely new paradigm of product innovation. It is the marketing more than the method that ensures its value. And because an innovation-driven economy sets high store by unique selling points, C2C finds itself in the strange predicament that it needs to protect its own method. This is not to say that McDonough and Braungart are evil; far from it. In order to reform industry they are simply forced to work together with businesses, since governments’ strategies don’t work. But the marketing scheme necessary to engage with corporate clients has taken on a life of its own. In the words of the ecologist philosopher Henk Oosterling, “the medium has become milieu” and now simply dictates the way to go.25 In all their C2C dealings McDonough and Braungart make use of an SM-license which is a preregistration form of copyright (Europe) and patent (USA) for immaterial services. They also reassure their clients that C2C “does not alter common intellectual property understanding: Products and inventions belong to producers”.26 Thirdly, the literally priceless data on toxic materials, ways to purify them, etcetera,27 C2C has been generating for quite some time now remain locked behind intellectual property rights as well. Lastly, with regard to the proposed industrial loop every company or conglomerate needs to instigate, it follows that the industrial nutrients no longer need to change owner ship when a consumer buys them. Instead, the consumer buys a service and the actual material stays forever in the hands of the producer!28

Active expertocracy, passive majority

Thus C2C functions as a catalyst for a sharper divide between producers and consumers, between experts and dummies. Yet total corporate ownership of both the material and the intellectual commons would lock down anyone trying to act ecologically who is not a producer. Bateson would observe that the acrobat now has his arms tied behind his back. The ecologist André Gorz explains this tendency to make people redundant when he maintains that ‘to prevent…profit from dwindling, the productivity of an ever decreasing number of active workers must increase faster and faster.’29 Most of these economically redundant people we find in the Third World where they live in vast slums built on toxic waste dumps, garbage belts and unstable mountain flanks. Apart from the fact that many of them make their living sorting through garbage belts and will be kicked off the moment C2C is implemented on a large scale, conceptually they form the worst image possible of the passivity the economy necessarily generates in the face of environmental change.30 Any ecological model should work against this tendency of the market to generate human waste. To that end, the wider dissemination of knowledge is crucial.

Open source

In his plea for an open source architecture in which many parties work together to solve the spatial problems of the city, the Dutch architect Dennis Kaspori summarized the current production paradigm as follows: heavy emphasis on innovation coupled with a market system distributing products unobtrusively through the mechanisms of demand and supply.31 In the realm of open source software it is the other way around. The free flow of unrestricted information needs and creates a user community with a large number of active members who exchange and manipulate data ever more intensely. Thus it is possible for anyone to become active as know ledge is easily obtainable. Innovation happens there as well, but as a result of the fast recombination of information rather than heavy sponsorship. While in the market innovation is profit-driven, with the open source model it is based on the needs a community encounters.32 Gorz describes a special instance of this distributive model, auto-fabrication, centered not around knowledge or information as such, but around the easy manipulation of materials. He especially favors some – thing called personal fabrication or fabbing which enables one to create one’s own high-tech machines. Because of the low costs involved (the knowledge is free, the machines are cheap and use few resources), fabbing is an excellent way to become able to produce again according to need; for instance, the ANC has recently become very interested in the introduction of fabbers in South Africa.33

Community building

In the last year, McDonough and Braungart have been trying to create a C2C community. This is partly to better disseminate ecological knowledge, but it is also about making consumers start exercising demand for C2C products. In this C2C is no different from any other sustainable product line. The problem here is that the community comes after the product. This means that the C2C method might profit immensely from the reverse of the innovation model: first a community centered on the distribution of ideas from which innovation and new business models will naturally follow – as has been proven extensively in the realm of software where remuneration is received for services rendered instead of products delivered.34 Recently Frank Oxener has started a FabLab on the island of Texel and has stated that he wants to produce only following the C2C method.35 Hopefully his work will help McDonough and Braungart realize that making the C2C material databases public is a necessary step.

Opening the databases

In conclusion, a divide exists between the purported C2C method of redesigning production processes and the business model centered on innovation through which McDonough and Braungart market C2C. The latter restricts the use and dissemination of the knowledge as well as the materials necessary to reform all human production to a cradle to cradle model. As such it also reproduces the division between producers and consumers, ultimately emphasizing the creation of the poor and utterly passive pool of surplus labor. The method itself, however, greatly sensitizes those who work with it to an ecological way of thinking. When coupled with an open source working method and local ways of production, the triumphant message that ‘Everybody is a designer’ now has the potential to come true – provided designers render services that are built upon a shared and ever-increasing knowledge that allows all humans on the planet to work toward “an ongoing complex system, open-ended for slow change of even basic (hard-programmed) characteristics”. Hopefully the union of C2C and FabLab will make clear that the knowledge and data uncovered in the C2C project are too valuable to keep tied up. Michael Braungart might even welcome that because when asked about their copyright restrictions, he answered, “We only copyrighted our book and the publications to hold some modicum of control over their contents – to prevent greenwashing, in fact. But since our goal isn’t any kind of profit, they can as well be spread as if under a CC license, or even copyleft.”36



1. The French Group (Jean Aubert and Jean Beaudrillard), ‘The Environmental Witch Hunt’, p. 2, at: http://www.metamute.org/en/the_environmental_witch_hunt_statement_by_the_french_group_1970.
2. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the way we make things (New York: North Point Press, 2002), p. 104.
3. Idem, p. 45.
4. Idem, p. 65.
5. Idem, p. 67.
6. Idem, p. 130.
7. http://mbdc.com/c2c_home.htm
8. Cradle to Cradle, p. 180.
9. Idem, p. 150.
10. Idem, p. 124.
11. Idem, p. 29.
12. Michael Braungart, interview at the first big Dutch C2C conference Let’s Cradle on November 1st and 2nd 2007, Maastricht.
13. Cradle to Cradle, p. 78.
14. http://mbdc.com/images/quote_c2c.gif
15. T.G. Aalbers, F.D. Dietz en D. Nagelhout, Een quick scan van het concept Cradle-to-Cradle in de context van het Nederlandse milieubeleid. Publication number 500086003 (Bilthoven: Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving, 2008), pp. 2-3. Also at: http://www.mnp.nl/nl/publicaties/2008/EenquickscanvanhetconceptCradle-to-Cradleindecontextvanhet Nederlandsemilieubeleid.html
16. Cradle to Cradle, p. 61.
17. Gregory Bateson, ‘Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,’ in: Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Frogmore, St Albans: Paladin, 1973), p. 470.
18. Idem, p. 474.
19. Roefie Hueting, as heard on 1 November 2007 at Let’s Cradle in Maastricht. http://www.letscradle.nl/images/stories/2007-11_maastricht/downloads/Roefie_Hueting_speech_maastricht_c2c_1-11-07.pdf, p.2.
20. David C. Korten, Het bedrijfsleven aan de macht (Rotterdam: Lemniscaat 2003), p. 112. For a short English excerpt, see http://www.pcdf.org/corprule/failure.htm.
21. Cradle to Cradle, p. 66
22. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 252-257. Mike Davis, ‘A Surplus Humanity?’ in: Planet of Slums (London, New York: Verso, 2006), pp. 174-198.
23. On the colony as outlet for human superfluity, see: Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, 1968), pp. 189-191; and Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives. Modernity and its outcasts (Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2004), p. 37-39.
24. Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access. How the Shift from Ownership to Access is Transforming Modern Life (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000).
25. ‘[Als] het medium milieu is geworden,’ p. 29 in: Henk Oosterling, Radicale Middelmatigheid (Amsterdam: Boom, 2000).
26. http://www.epea.com/english/services/whatweoffer.htm
27. To be found at http://www.materialconnexion.com
28. Cradle to Cradle, pp. 111-112.
29. ‘Pour empêcher le volume du profit de baisser, il faudrait que la productivité d’un nombre de plus en plus réduit d’actifs augmente de plus en plus vite,’ p. 110 in: André Gorz, ‘Crise mondiale, décroissance et sortie du capitalisme’ in: André Gorz, Écologica (Paris: Galilée, 2008), pp. 107-122.
30. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, p. 128.
31. Dennis Kaspori, ‘A communism of ideas: towards an architectural open source practice’ at: http://www.themaze.org/opensource.html, pp. 4-5.
32. Merijn Oudenampsen, ‘Open Source Urbanism: a first step’, Open 15 (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008).
33. André Gorz, Écologica, p. 121.
34. Dennis Kaspori, ‘A communism of ideas,’ pp. 5-6.
35. http://texel.fablab.nl
36. Braungart, interview at Let’s Cradle conference.


This article was published in Volume #18, ‘After Zero’.

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