Foreword: The Natural Advantage of Nations (2004)


Imagine a world in which all the things we make, use and consume provide nutrition for nature and industry, a world in which everything is so intelligently designed human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint.

Imagine having the choice, in every sphere of life—at home, on the job, traveling from place to place—to use goods and services that enhance the well-being of your community.

Imagine those goods designed with only safe, healthful materials that can be either returned to the earth to replenish the soil or recovered by their manufacturers to be upcycled into products of higher value, virtually eliminating the concept of waste. Think packaging becoming food for the pea patch, automobiles designed for disassembly, and cost-effective factories powered by the energy of the sun.

Imagine high-tech buildings so in tune with the biosphere that they inhabit the landscape like native trees, making oxygen, sequestering carbon, fixing nitrogen, purifying water, providing habitat for thousands of species, accruing solar energy, building soil, and changing with the seasons—while also generating remarkable productivity and providing beauty, comfort, and delight.

And then consider the many ways in which these changes, this rediscovery of our connection to life, could revitalize our cities, our economies, and our nations, remaking the way we make things and transforming humanity’s relation to the earth.

Such changes are not only in our grasp, they are emerging with such energy one could say that we have reached a “tipping point,” a moment in history when we have begun to understand, as Albert Einstein said, that “the world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”

And so beyond the revolution in product and facility design we can see new thinking in many realms. We see the City of Chicago adopting sustainable design principles to guide decision making for generations of civic leaders. We see business competitors in major industries, such as packaging and electronics, working together to develop business-to-business communities devoted to creating new, ecologically intelligent standards that will transform conventional manufacturing. We see one of the world’s top business schools, Spain’s Instituto de Empresa, establishing a new Centre for Eco-Intelligent Management to foster innovative thinking among business leaders. In so many respects we have already “tipped” toward a new world.

But the old ways of thinking die hard, even among those working toward sustainable development. The conventional wisdom would have us believe, for example, that the ecological crisis is the inevitable outcome of economic activity, or, on the other hand, that we need only reduce the negative impacts of industry to move safely and prosperously into the future. But both views are simplifications. Both assume an inherent conflict between nature and commerce, and so each fails to see that economic, social and environmental concerns are synergistic and can propel effective innovation. As well, such thinking obscures the fact that the destructive qualities of today’s industrial system are the result of a fundamental design problem, a problem that neither regulation nor timid reforms can ever hope to address.

And so the conventional wisdom fails to get to the heart of the matter—which is simply this: An industrial system powered by fossil fuels and nuclear energy that puts billions of tons of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year; requires thousands of complex regulations to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly; and erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices is not only unsustainable in any form, but is a miserably unsatisfying way to do business—and to live.

The alternative is thorough reinvention, addressing design problems at their source, rather than tinkering with the flawed engines of conventional industry. That’s why understanding design’s central role in transforming manufacturing and commerce is so crucial. And that’s why cradle-to-cradle design offers hope for an entirely different world.

Cradle-to-cradle design begins with the proposition that the effective, regenerative cycles of nature—the cyclical flows of energy, water, and nutrients that support life—provide an unmatched model for wholly positive human designs. In the natural world, one organism’s “waste” cycles through an ecosystem to provide nourishment for other living things; its productivity is beneficial and regenerative—waste equals food. Just so, cradle-to-cradle products are designed to circulate in closed-loop cycles that virtually eliminate waste and provide “nutrients” for nature and industry.

The cradle-to-cradle framework recognizes two metabolisms within which materials flow as healthy nutrients. First, nature’s nutrient cycles constitute the biological metabolism. Materials designed to flow optimally in the biological metabolism are biological nutrients. Products conceived as these nutrients, such as biodegradeable fabrics, are designed to be used and safely returned to the environment to nourish living systems. Second, the technical metabolism, designed to mirror earth’s cradle-to-cradle cycles, is a closed loop system in which valuable, high-tech synthetics and mineral resources—technical nutrients—circulate in perpetual cycles of production, recovery and remanufacture. Ideally, all the human artifacts that make up the technical metabolism, from buildings to manufacturing systems, are powered by renewable energy.

Working within this framework we can, by design, enhance humanity’s positive impact on the world. Rather than limiting growth or reducing emissions or using brute force to overcome the rules of the natural world, we can create economies worldwide that purify air, land and water; that rely on current solar income and generate no waste; that support energy-effectiveness, healthy productivity and social well being. In short, sound, regenerative economies that enhance all life.

A brief look at some of the innovative work inspired by cradle-to-cradle thinking strongly suggests that we can achieve a healthy, sustaining economy in this century. Products designed as biological and technical nutrients, for example, have already successfully entered the marketplace. The upholstery fabric Climatex Lifecycle is a blend of pesticide-residue-free wool and organically grown ramie, dyed and processed entirely with non-toxic chemicals. All of its product and process inputs were defined and selected for their human and ecological safety within the biological metabolism. The result: after the end of its useful commercial life the fabric can be used as garden mulch for growing fruits and vegetables, returning the textile’s biological nutrients to the soil.

Honeywell, meanwhile, is marketing a textile for the technical metabolism, a high-quality carpet yarn called Zeftron Savant, which is made of perpetually recyclable nylon 6 fiber. Zeftron Savant is designed to be reclaimed and repolymerized—taken back to its constituent resins—to become new material for new carpets. In fact, Honeywell can retrieve old, conventional nylon 6 and transform it into Zeftron Savant, upcycling rather than downcycling an industrial material. The nylon is rematerialized, not dematerialized—a true cradle-to-cradle product.

Shaw Industries, the world’s largest commercial carpet maker, is going a step further, developing a safe, technical nutrient carpet tile and a system for its recovery and remanufacture—a technical metabolism. Responding to widespread scientific and consumer concern about PVC in carpet backing, Shaw developed a safe, polyolefin-based backing system with all the performance benefits of PVC, which it guarantees it will take back along with its high quality nylon 6 carpet fiber. All the materials that go into the carpet will continually circulate in technical nutrient cycles. Raw material to raw material. Waste equals food.

This cradle-to-cradle cycle is altogether different from typical eco-efficient recycling, which tends to mix carpets’ face fiber and PVC backing, yielding a hybrid material of lesser value. In effect, the materials are not recycled at all but downcycled—and they are still on a one way, cradle-to-grave trip to the landfill or incinerator. There, the PVC content of the material makes recycled carpet hazardous waste.

Shaw’s groundbreaking work, however, shows how the material flows of an entire industry can be transformed by adopting the cradle-to-cradle paradigm. Indeed, Shaw has changed its corporate mission to reflect its new direction. As Shaw’s Steve Bradfield says, “Sustainability is our goal; cradle-to-cradle is our path.”

After a decade in which cradle-to-cradle thinking emerged business by business as companies such as Shaw, Nike, Ford, and Herman Miller integrated eco-effective thinking into everyday operations, we are now seeing a new wave of innovation that is carrying cradle-to-cradle principles beyond company boundaries into cooperative inter-business communities and the wider world.

Consider, for example, how competitors in the packaging industry are using cradle-to-cradle design as a catalyst for industry-wide change. Currently, the life cycle of most packaging is a one-way, cradle-to-grave stream of materials. In the U.S. alone, 45 million tons of containers and packaging are discarded annually, creating a host of unintended environmental problems. But what if packaging flowed in cradle-to-cradle cycles, generating only positive effects? What if it provided nutrition for soil and created no waste?

Those were the questions that came to the fore in March 2003 when the EPA-sponsored Cradle-to-Cradle Design Challenge invited the industry to re-design e-commerce packaging. The purpose of the challenge was to stimulate creativity and offer the industry positive alternatives to regulation.

“Regulations will always be a part of the picture,” said EPA Office of Solid Waste Project Director Claire Lindsay. “But we are also trying to find ways to encourage ‘beyond compliance,’ and cradle-to-cradle design is totally beyond compliance. That resonates with industry. Industry wants maximum freedom to innovate, and going beyond compliance by means of this new paradigm generates innovative thinking.”

Indeed it does. Not only did the design challenge encourage the packaging industry to consider the ecological and human health characteristics of materials, it laid the foundation for an industry working group devoted to implementing cradle-to-cradle principles. After a pair of meetings arranged by Green Blue, the non-profit established to shepherd cradle-to-cradle design into the public domain, industry giants such as Cargill Dow, Dow Chemical, Estee Lauder/Aveda, Mead/Westvaco, Nike, Starbucks, Tropicana/Pepsi and Unilever organized to pursue “a positive, robust environmental vision for packaging” which includes developing cyclical material flows and “increasing demand for environmentally intelligent, cradle-to-cradle materials.” The resulting Sustainable Packaging Coalition, officially launched in March 2004, represents a promising, replicable model in which cooperation, quality and innovation drive mutually beneficial, industry-wide change.

EPA Office of Solid Waste has also partnered with GreenBlue on the eDesign Idea Competition to develop cradle-to-cradle standards for the electronics industry. Like packaging waste flows, the electronics solid waste stream in formidable and far-flung. But as electronics designers work with and internalize cradle-to-cradle principles, they will be able to apply them to the design of products, production processes, distribution logistics and delivery systems. Cradle-to-cradle principles also provide a platform for shared leadership and collaboration among a range of stakeholders—suppliers, manufacturers, dismantlers, government agencies, academia and non-governmental organizations—involved in realizing integrated systems of design, manufacturing and material recovery.

The design competitions also marked the beginning of a promising new relationship between government and industry. Commenting on the new industry groups sparked by the competitions, EPA Policy Analyst Angie Leith noted: “Looking into the future, we see that we have to look upstream. We have to look at material flow management and not waste management. We have to think of cradle-to-cradle rather than cradle-to-grave. That’s the direction we want to go.”

Cities, too, want to go in that direction. In Chicago, for example, cradle-to-cradle principles are serving as a reference point for long-term urban planning as the city strives to become the greenest in America. And the work is well underway. Along with a host of traditional beautification efforts, such as the planting of some 300,000 trees, Mayor Richard Daley’s administration is also working to make the city a model of how industry and ecology, city and nature, can flourish side-by-side. To that end, the City has installed a green roof on City Hall and undertaken the largest brownfield redevelopment effort in the United States. It has begun to restore the Lake Michigan shoreline and committed to buying 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2006. Meanwhile, renewable energy companies, such as the solar panel manufacturer Spire, have moved their headquarters to the Chicago Center for Green Technology, a new ecologically intelligent facility built on a restored industrial site. Spire is already supplying Chicago with locally manufactured solar panels, which the City has installed on the roofs of the Field Museum, the Mexican Fine Arts Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Chicago’s successful application of an ecologically intelligent, technologically advanced urban planning strategy suggests a bright future for cradle-to-cradle cities. As cradle-to-cradle material and energy flows become an integral part of industry, re-industrialization will become a clean, safe, option for healthy urban growth. The 21st century city will not only fit elegantly into the natural landscape, it will become a revitalizing force in its region.

In this new regional metropolis, biological and technical nutrition flow back and forth between city and countryside, enriching both. The city receives food, water and energy from a broad nexus of solar-powered, biologically-based, photosynthetic systems. The energy of the sun is harvested on rooftops; rural windmills power city buildings; water falls on a network of rooftop gardens and interconnected greenways, flowing safely into the soil, into the watershed, into the air. In the countryside, farmers grow food using implements manufactured in the city—technical nutrients—and the city receives this nourishment, digests it and excretes it back to its source, returning biological nutrients to the rural soil. The windmills on the farm, a new cash crop, are forged in the city, produce power for the region in the countryside, and then are returned to the city every twenty years to be refurbished and returned to the farm. Everything moves in regenerative cycles, from city to country, country to city, all the polymers, metals, and synthetic fibers flowing safely in the technical metabolism, all the photosynthetic nutrients—food, wood, natural fibers—flowing in the biological metabolism. These flows of nutrients are the twin metabolisms of the living city that allow human settlements and the natural world to thrive together. Building the infrastructure to support them is a key challenge for the 21st century city.

From the borders of the regional metropolis we can begin to imagine the cradle-to-cradle national economy. A national economic strategy developed around biological and technical nutrient flows inherently supports national industry. In the United States, for example, making quality, innovation, and environmental health the hallmarks of industry would give a whole range of businesses a competitive edge and create new markets for American products. Perhaps more importantly, it would lay the foundation for the re-vitalization of on-shore manufacturing as companies move their operations close to home to optimize the value of their technical nutrient cycles, which are most beneficial when materials are recovered and re-used with a minimum of transportation. As we have seen in Chicago, this kind of deeply considered, ecologically intelligent re-industrialization would make manufacturing a safe, beneficial addition to community life. This does not mean an end to trade between regions or nations. On the contrary, it simply suggests that, as in politics, all sustainability is local and that a nation of cradle-to-cradle economies would be an economically vibrant nation as well as a good trading partner.

Consider 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.

Yet it offers an unparalleled arena for innovation. China has recognized that the cradle-to-cradle strategy can be applied on a large scale and in 2002 Madame Deng Nan, China’s Vice Minister of Science and Technology, declared that it will begin to develop industries and products based on cradle-to-cradle principles. Working with the China-US Center for Sustainable Development, China is already applying cradle-to-cradle thinking to urban and rural planning and developing a variety of solar and wind powered enterprises.

These are the kinds of projects that could transform the relationship between China and the United States, and indeed the foundations of world trade. The two powers represent critical dimensions of the human enterprise that clearly have a profound influence on the future of the planet. The combined impact of their industrial practices alone calls forth both great responsibilities and great opportunities. As the cradle-to-cradle infrastructure grows in China, as it is growing in the United States, the two nations could well become cradle-to-cradle industrial partners, developing products and enterprises that support the life and health of both.

This cooperative relationship, at its best, will be a competitive one. Rather than competing to destroy each other, however, China and the U.S. could compete in the classic sense of the word, which in Latin means “to strive together.” Imagine, then, the two nations—or a coalition of nations—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 calls for global action. It requires energy, genius, creativity and commitment from all sectors of society from all nations. It asks that communities, governments, NGOs, educators, and business leaders from Beijing to Buenos Aries apply cradle-to-cradle design and development to the pursuit of a prosperous, equitable future for all. We must, all of us, reach for nothing less.

There is much to do and much to learn. That is why The Natural Advantage of Nations is an important contribution to our common future. A veritable encyclopedia of inspiring case studies, it shows how whole systems thinking, effectively applied by cooperative stakeholders, can achieve real, lasting change in the design of our world. Indeed, the range of stakeholders involved in the book parallels a larger, global shift in which the principles of ecologically intelligent design are being adopted by businesses, communities, NGOs, universities, and entire nations. Within these pages you will see that there is reason for robust hope, and as you read, we hope you will be inspired to contribute to this magnificent re-evolution of human enterprise, a moment in our history when the things we make and build and grow can become a truly regenerative force.

William McDonough
August 12, 2004
Charlottesville, Virginia

Foreword: The Natural Advantage of Nations © 2004 William McDonough