Foreword to the Chinese Edition of Cradle to Cradle (2003)

Chinese edition of Cradle to Cradle

One of the wonders of human nature is our ability to hope. Even in the midst of tragedy we dream and think ahead and persevere. The great biologist Edward O. Wilson calls us “the future-seeking species” and suggests that natural selection has made hopefulness a unique human quality, “a necessary companion of intelligence.”

Still more human, perhaps, is our capacity for acting on our hopes. We not only dream, we strive to achieve the dreams we imagine. Behind all human achievement, from the creative acts of artists to the building of communities, from the making and trading of goods to the work of nations, there is aspiration, resolve, and action.

We wrote Cradle to Cradle in this spirit of hope and resolve. By celebrating a commercially productive, socially beneficial, and ecologically intelligent approach to the making of things, we wanted to suggest the possibility of a positive, inspiring future for human endeavor.

Our vision owes much to Chinese culture. The idea that humanity can have a mutually beneficial relationship with the biological world is the foundation of the 4000 year-old tradition of Chinese agriculture. Without a fundamental understanding of the regenerative, cradle-to-cradle nutrient flows that enrich the soil and bring new growth, without a keen appreciation for the many ways in which human participation in the landscape can support life, Chinese civilization would not have survived. And yet it has thrived. How inspiring to see that cradle-to-cradle thinking can become not only the common knowledge of a people, but the rich soil of a lively culture and a venerable philosophical tradition.

Yet even deeply rooted cultural traditions can be lost. In China, as well as in the West, the advent of industrialism created a kind of cultural amnesia in which a linear, cradle-to-grave paradigm replaced the cyclical patterns of perpetual agriculture. In the United States it took merely a century to turn the rich, fertile soil of the Great Plains into the ravaged landscape of the Dust Bowl. In China, the accumulated knowledge of 40 centuries of farming began to slip away in the course of two generations. Industry, meanwhile, never seriously considered how it might benefit from cradle-to-cradle thinking, and could not have foreseen all the ways in which its cradle-to-grave model would change the world. And so today, while human endeavors generate great wealth and technological wonders, we also see that there are places in the depths of the Pacific Ocean where particles of plastic outnumber zooplankton six-to-one.

But what if even polymers could be designed as “nutrients”? That’s the vision of Cradle to Cradle. Its strategy is simple. By modeling the technical world of industry on the cradle-to-cradle traditions of agriculture, all the materials we use can provide “nutrition” for nature and industry. This is the foundation of a truly cradle-to-cradle world: A world of interdependent natural and human systems, powered by renewable energy, in which everything we make flows in safe, healthful biological and technical cycles, elegantly and equitably deployed for the benefit of all.

Industry employs and profits from the cradle-to-cradle strategy by designing materials as nutrients that can circulate in one or the other of these regenerative, closed-loop cycles. In the biological cycle organic materials designed for composting, such as biodegradable packaging, are returned to the soil after use. In the technical cycle, safe, high-tech, synthetic materials—technical nutrients—are produced, used, recovered and remanufactured in a perpetual flow of valuable assets. These nutrient flows, we hope, will become the foundation of 21st century industry.

The cornerstone has already been set. In the United States and Europe, companies such as Ford Motor Company, BASF, Nike, Shaw Industries and many others have adopted the cradle-to-cradle strategy. Shaw, for example, the largest producer of commercial carpet in the world, has begun to apply cradle-to-cradle thinking to its product development process. After a scientific assessment of the material chemistry of its carpet fiber and backing to ensure that every material is safe, Shaw designed a perpetually recyclable, completely healthful technical nutrient carpet tile that virtually eliminates the concept of waste. Ford, meanwhile, has launched the cradle-to-cradle renovation of its famous Rouge River industrial site with a new manufacturing facility, a factory with a living roof and a landscape of wetlands and swales that naturally purifies storm water run-off. Ford also introduced in 2003, the Model U, a concept car designed to explore the use of safe, beneficial cradle-to-cradle materials in the transportation industry.

These emerging strategies of change, rather than seeking to simply maintain or reduce the negative impacts of industry, aim to create industrial systems and products that have positive, regenerative impacts on the natural world. And not coincidentally, enterprises such as these are also responsive to economic and social concerns. Indeed, we don’t have to settle for imagining a factory where respected workers produce safe, profitable products in a clean, sunlit plant that enriches the local economy while purifying water—it already exists.

Why not many such places? Why not a new era of positive problem solving that celebrates the human impact on the natural world? We would measure success not by how much eroded soil has been treated but how much healthy soil has been created; not how many dams have been built to reduce flooding but how much water has followed its natural flow cycle safely and productively; not how much hazardous waste in landfills has been reduced but how many products have been produced safely without ever having to put anything into a landfill.

These are the kinds of solutions that could transform the relationship between China and the United States. Currently, the two nations suffer from the commercial exchange of toxic products that damage the economic, social and environmental health of both nations. While China becomes the world’s low-cost producer of toxic products, the U.S. brings those products to market with the world’s most “efficient” distribution system, moving goods in a rapid, one-way trip from retailer to consumer to landfill. In many cases, the U.S. sends the most toxic products back to China, where lead and copper are unsafely recycled from computers and televisions. This is trade as mutually assured destruction.

It is profoundly important to reform this relationship. The two powers represent critical dimensions of the human enterprise that clearly have a determining influence on the future of the planet. The combined influence of their industrial practices alone calls forth both great responsibilities and great opportunities. To that end, we are working towards the day when China and the United States become cradle-to-cradle industrial partners, generating products and enterprises that support the life and health of each nation. This cooperative relationship, at its best, will also be a competitive one. Rather than competing to destroy each other, however, we could compete in the classic sense of the word, which in Latin means “to strive together.” Imagine, then, working vigorously toward a common goal: Not an end game in which one player wins, but a field of endeavor in which China and the U.S. get fit together as each nation strives to create enterprises that generate commercial productivity, ecological intelligence and cultural wealth.

That will only be a beginning. The birth of truly regenerative industry and commerce asks for global action. It requires the energy, genius, and commitment of all sectors of society from all nations. It asks that communities, governments, NGOs, educators, and business leaders from Boston to Beijing apply cradle-to-cradle design and development to the pursuit of a prosperous, equitable future for all. We must reach, all of us, for nothing less.

There is much to do and much to learn. And there is reason to hope. Businesses worldwide are taking up the cradle-to-cradle strategy. The emerging relationship between China and the United States itself offers bright prospects. China alone, in fact, stands as a testament to the possibilities of renewal. And so it is with great humility that we offer this book through the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development to the Chinese people. In ways large or small, we hope that it will contribute to a magnificent re-evolution of human enterprise, a moment in our shared history when the things we make and build and grow truly are a regenerative force.

William McDonough & Michael Braungart
Charlottesville and Hamburg
October 2003

Foreword: Chinese Edition of Cradle to Cradle © 2003 William McDonough and Michael Braungart

China-US Center