The Context for Cradleto Cradle

In its positive, design-based approach to sustainability, cradle-to-cradle connects principles from a number of disciplines. It embraces Green Chemistry in calling for the selection and design of new molecules and materials that are inherently benign with respect to human and ecological health. As with Industrial Ecology, cradle-to-cradle conceives materials and energy flows as "nutrients" processed within "metabolisms" (Ayres, 1994). It incorporates Design for the Environment (DfE), directing design to eliminate human and ecological hazards at all phases of the product lifecycle, and facilitating the efficient recycling of products and materials. It also involves the engineering disciplines - green engineering and/or engineering for sustainability - by challenging designers and engineers to integrate the use of benign materials into products and subsequently into material flow metabolisms, moving away from cradle-to-grave thinking and towards continual recycling and/or use for energy and value recovery in biological systems. In its broad vision, cradle-to-cradle is consistent with other programs for sustainability such as the System Conditions of The Natural Step (see Chapter 3).

Cradle-to-cradle design differs from other initiatives and approaches in some significant ways. First of all, it is both poetic and practical. While that sounds profoundly nontechnical, it is profoundly effective in the business world. Its optimistic approach to sustainability does not argue that we should do less, make less, and use less. It is not primarily concerned with efficiency, but with effectiveness. It sets forth a positive vision of healthy, sustaining industry toward which businesses can progress by redesigning products and processes. And it offers practical methods for creating products made of nutrients to flow safely in metabolisms. Within this model, efficiency serves to maximize positive effects rather than minimize damage. Cradle-to-cradle moves the discussion away from comparative risk assessment, lifecycle assessment or even whether or not to be precautionary - and towards a positive design vision that leads to sustainable material flows. This is a fundamental distinction and shift. Risk assessment, lifecycle and impact assessment, and the precautionary principle are all important tools, but they have different intents and purposes than cradle-to-cradle design. Cradle-to-cradle asks different questions of chemists, engineers, and other designers. Rather than assessing and comparing products for the lowest risk or least environmental impact, cradle-to-cradle asks how best to design a product with particular functional attributes so that it can productively and safely circulate within material flow metabolisms. The cradle-to-cradle approach assesses hazard, exposure, and to some extent energy, but within a framework of sustainable material flows.

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