Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Upcycling the Upcycle: Thoughts on the new book by McDonough & Braungart

By Matt Prindiville, Associate Director 

“The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.” - excerpt from the Upcycle by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart

I recently read Bill McDonough's and Michael Braungart’s new book, the Upcycle.  As someone who was profoundly affected by their first book, Cradle-to-Cradle, I looked forward to my long cross-country plane ride home where I eagerly devoured the book.  From the first pages, I was struck by what these two do best: inspire us to believe that environmental problems can be solved by new ways of thinking and doing.

Abundance versus Scarcity
The central message of the Upcycle is that our natural world is a thriving place full of abundance, and that we can design production and consumption systems that support nature’s tendency toward abundance rather than diminish it.  For folks familiar with the conventional definition of “upcycle,” which means converting waste materials into new materials or products of better quality or better environmental value, this is an expansion of that idea.  McDonough and Braungart’s focus is on green design as the core strategy to achieve this goal, and they cite numerous real-world and theoretical examples to confirm this position.

Where many environmental “solutions” are based on the premise of using less resources by becoming more “eco-efficient,” they argue that this focus is often misguided.  From their perspective, what is most important is becoming “eco-effective,” which I paraphrase to mean: getting what we want through either no negative impact or beneficial support to the natural world.  They use the example of people enjoying long, hot showers.  The conventional green wisdom is that long, hot showers are bad for the environment.  If you care, you should purchase a low-flow showerhead, set the temperature as cold as you can stand it, and get out as soon as possible.  They argue that if you have a closed-loop water circulation system that is heated by passive-solar technology, you can take a hot shower as long as you want with virtually no impact on the planet.  That’s an eco-effective solution.

“Less Bad is No Good”
This is my new favorite slogan.  Many of our environmentally regulations are focused on making things “less bad.”  For example, we set limits on the amount of harmful emissions that a power plant or industrial facility can pollute.  While these laws are important, McDonough and Braungart write that we should put greater focus on developing incentives for the creation and deployment of new technologies that can deliver the same goods and services without pollution or ecological harm.  “Not bad” is good for everyone.

A “Regulation” Means “Here is Something to Be Redesigned”
McDonough and Braungart use several examples to show where regulations are “alerts to design failures.”  We need laws protecting our air, water and land because of poor design around production and consumption and the subsequent waste and pollution created.  These regulations can be made moot through the widespread deployment of technologies and practices that deliver the same goods without pollution or waste.  While some would deride this as naïve or “happytalk,” it is a powerful reminder of what we can achieve with sufficient motivation and the right drivers in place.

Speaking of the Right Drivers…
If I have one criticism of the Upcyle, it’s that McDonough and Braungart are overly focused on green design and not enough on public policy change.   I understand that they are respectively, an architect and a chemist, and they have made significant global contributions through developing green design solutions for large companies.  Their Cradle-to-Cradle Certification process for product design is creating a new de-facto industry standard for safe and sustainable products. Talking about design is where they are most comfortable. 

But green design without an appropriate legal framework often doesn’t effectively reward environmental leaders and can let the laggards off the hook.  Often, if one company wants to do the right thing, they are put at a competitive disadvantage. And some green innovations, like designing safer chemicals for use in electronics, will not be widely deployed without legislation.   This is especially true for systems innovations, like extended producer responsibility.  One company may want its product or packaging reused or recycled at the end of its useful life, but they cannot change or improve our existing recycling systems in and of themselves. 

Most big environmental problems cannot be solved by one company working alone on voluntary measures, or even loosely allied through trade associations.  Really big problems call for a shift in the way we do things for everyone involved, and it’s often these types of problems that require legislation to hold businesses and individuals to the same higher standards.

Upcycling the Upcycle
The marriage of green design and effective public policy will be the key to upcycling the Upcycle.  We need to create the legal frameworks that empower and reward individuals and companies for developing goods and services in ways that protect and even nourish the planet.  These frameworks must also set standards to pull the laggards up to join the environmental leaders. Extended producer responsibility, safer chemicals policy, a price on carbon are all examples of the policies needed to achieve this vision.

If we are successful in passing the right policy drivers, then we will be able to widely encourage and deploy the design solutions that McDonough, Braungart and many others are working to create for our most pressing environmental problems.  We will also have gone a long way toward creating the “delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”

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