William McDonough & Michael Braungart’s newest book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, is an updated version of their manifesto Cradle to Cradle, published over a decade ago. The Upcycle goes one step beyond the theory behind Cradle to Cradle: Rather than continuously reusing materials in a closed-loop system as proposed in the first book, The Upcycle suggests that humans can have a net positive effect.
The Upcycle rejects the idea of merely being ‘less bad’ and proposes that we focus more on creating a positive footprint for future generations. This may seem utopian but the ideas behind this being put into practice are not only possible but, as the authors describe, profitable.
A recurring theme of the book is to ask the question ‘What’s next?’ for the products we create. Often, when recycling products, the recycled product’s quality is not as high as the original, mostly due to the fact that it’s been mixed with other elements during its first lifetime. The authors ask us not only to create products that will be useful for what they are intended but how we can design them to be useful again and again.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart have a way of thinking outside of the box that is vastly different than just being creative; it’s as though they ignore the box completely. The authors do not look for solutions to problems, they eliminate problems so solutions are no longer needed. When presented with a glass filled midway with water, they do not look at the glass as being half full or half empty. They take a step back, fully examine the contents of the glass and determine that it is half filled with water and half filled with air.
McDonough and Braungart question things many of us have long taken as fact. They consider options that seem to be unrealistic, such as horizontal chimneys, leasing carpets and other products rather than buying them, and completely eliminating the word “waste” from our vocabulary. They ask whether or not water used in a factory can leave the factory cleaner than it was when it came in and the answer, it turns out, is yes.
One example of upcycling is water conservation. While taking shorter showers has often been a proposed solution for making the water shortage problem less bad, McDonough and Braungart suggest filtering the used water (which is absolutely feasible) and using solar power to heat it. In doing this, people can shower for as long as they want without creating any ‘bad’ at all. In fact, this could result in a positive effect as people will, in theory, be happier and more relaxed from long, warm showers.
The concepts explored in Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle are not environmental or ethical; they are economical. These are the ideas of doing things right, creating things people want to use while not losing anything in the process, and take into account the long-term health and happiness of societies. While incremental sustainability initiatives might create short-term profits, long-term success for businesses, society and the planet are almost a guarantee when innovation and upcycling are the main focus.