The Cradle to Cradle Movement

Professor Dr. Michael Braungart is a professor at the Leuphana University Lüneburg, the founder and scientific CEO of EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, and the co-founder and scientific director of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC). Since working for Greenpeace International in the 1980s, Dr. Braungart has been an international leader on research and consultancy for eco-effective products. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Braungart about the Cradle to Cradle concept that he developed. 

Michael Braungart
February 17, 2020

 Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You first became involved with Greenpeace in the 1980s, helping them establish a chemistry section. How did you get started with this? What did your work look like? 

Michael Braungart (MB): Chemistry is amazingly primitive when it comes to environmental health. When I was younger, I started to protest against chemistry because it was polluting rivers and destroying species diversity. I started to analyze human breast milk to find out what chemicals actually accumulate in biological systems. And with that, I joined Greenpeace. I was the first activist in Greenpeace who had a scientific background and could climb chimneys, operate rubber boats, and organize protests. For example, I blocked ships dumping waste in the oceans by swimming around them. Waste was often dumped in the North Sea or the Atlantic. New York City in the 1980s was still dumping municipal waste in the ocean. They just put it in a boat, went out 50 miles, and dumped it. It was quite toxic and dangerous work, but we thought this would be the only way to protest against what was being done.

One of the last protest activities that I coordinated and organized was against the chemical industry in 1986. The chemical company Sandoz had a big fire and basically destroyed the whole life of the river Rhine for more than 200 miles. All the fish were dying and the water turned pink. This protest was different from ones in the past. Normally, there was security, and when they could reach us, they would beat us. We climbed up a chimney of the company Ciba Geigy and the company behaved differently. It was cold and dangerous, so the company promised us if we climbed down at night, they would let us climb up again the next morning. That gave the situation a completely different culture of dialogue. When we ended our protest, the company told us they were interested in sustainability. I told them, Albert Einstein said “no problem can be solved by the same type of thinking which generates the problem.” 

In 1976, when I was a high school student, the company Seveso in Northern Italy had a big chemical accident. The whole region was contaminated by dioxins. Before that, the United States was using pesticides to destroy Vietnam’s vegetation. We still see people suffering today from these disasters. With chemistry’s terrible reputation, I thought there was nothing greater than protest. We were risking our lives stopping people from doing these terrible things. But at a certain point, I thought it was time to turn to developing solutions. 

In 1988, I left Greenpeace and formed an organization called the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA). We mostly worked for NGOs, but at one point chemical companies began to approach us and said that if we were interested in solutions, we needed to work with the industry. 

JIA: After leaving Greenpeace, how did your thinking on sustainability evolve? 

MB: I began to think about sustainability. I realized sustainability is not what makes sense. Sustainability is bloody boring. If I ask how is your relationship with your wife, would you say sustainable? And the definition of sustainable development is quite sad. The Brundtland Commission 1986 definition defines sustainability as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations. You come home and tell your children you don’t want to compromise their needs. Wouldn’t you rather want to be good for your children? 

I decided to explore solutions from other cultures that demonstrated how to be good to the environment. Often, the Western world believes nature is only doing well when humans are not involved. I talked to Yanomani Indians, to the Dalai Lama, to rural Chinese communities. I talked to wise people in order to learn how our relationship with nature can be organized differently. I discovered completely different mindsets. 

This movement is not about caring, ethics, morals, or corporate social responsibility. For example, in Germany, when the chemical industry developed responsible care programs, we told them that people have rights, such as the right to be free of chemicals that accumulate in the body. But when reunification came, Germany and Europe became busy with that. It was clear they would not do anything anymore concerning the environment. People think the environment is an ethical category, but people forget ethical behavior when they are under stress. So, under the reunification process, Germany argued that they could not afford environmental protection anymore because they were using their money for East Germany. 

So, I moved to the United States, where I met William McDonough, my coauthor for Cradle to Cradle. I built an EPEA office in New York and launched an Intelligent Product party. We printed our invitation to the party on a prototype of a compostable diaper. This was very sensational to people. We also decided to rename the Intelligent Product System and landed on Cradle to Cradle. I thought the name was catchy and the marketing would be good. In 1994, I jointly formed an office with William McDonough called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, because he is a designer and I am a chemist. 

JIA: Cradle to Cradle has often been compared to the circular economy approach. How do they differ? 

MB: The basic principle of Cradle to Cradle is completely different to a circular economy. Now, the circular economy is adopting some of the Cradle to Cradle ideas and principles. I also supported the circular economy approach in Europe, in order to include countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania, because I wanted them to be a part of the innovation community. But now, the circular economy concept is a disaster in Europe. People take toxic materials, just mix it in bricks and call it circular economy. The PVC industry takes materials from old window frames into new window frames, even though the old frames have cadmium and lead, and call it circular economy. Yet, they are diluting toxic heavy metals into new products. 

Cradle to Cradle combines older ways of thinking, such as considering a native understanding that humans are a part of nature. It also includes a European way of understanding complex and problematic issues, and the American perspective of getting things done. 

Countries like the United States, Germany, or United Kingdom are based on fear, so we needed certification processes for Cradle to Cradle. Now we see that there are 11,000 Cradle to Cradle products on the market. If we continue at the same speed, before 2050 most industrial production will be Cradle to Cradle. On one side, this is necessary for government support because Cradle to Cradle is now in more and more public purchasing procurement guidelines for sustainability certification systems. But certification is not an inherent Cradle to Cradle value. 

It is amazing how fast this process has gone, and now key leading design schools around the world are teaching Cradle to Cradle. Before, designers were beautifiers. Now, they really are designing the process in itself, not just the shape or the final look of a product. 

I believe this process is moving forward quickly because a new generation is coming up that wants to be proud of what they are doing. They don’t care so much about ethics anymore. They care about self-esteem and recognition. Social media is more relevant than money. When you’re making waste, you’re just stupid. If you’re making toxic stuff, you’re just stupid, and that’s enough. This is far more stable than ethics because ethical habits disappear under stress. 

In this context, Cradle to Cradle is completely different to traditional sustainability and circular economy. For example, companies want to be climate neutral. This is completely silly because you only can be climate neutral when you do not exist. Have you ever seen a climate neutral tree? A tree is always good for the climate. 

Another example is a project where I looked at indoor air quality at an architecture school. The indoor air quality was three to eight times worse than the outside urban air. People were trying to save energy, so they seal buildings. With that, they were wrong. One of the key elements of Cradle to Cradle is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency means doing things right because otherwise, you’re optimizing the wrong things. People think about environmental protection as reducing damage. They might say, “Please protect the environment. Reduce your water consumption. Reduce your energy bill. Reduce your waste production,” but with this you are not protecting the environment. You are only minimizing damage. It’s like if I tell you, “Please protect your child. Just beat your child only five times instead of 10 times.” This is not protection, it is minimizing damage. 

JIA: You briefly mentioned ethics. What does ethics and morality have to do with Cradle-to- Cradle? 

MB: I believe this has to do with culture and religion. Religion tells us, “You’re evil and only God can redeem you.” So, you cannot be good, you can only be less bad. But other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Japanese Shinto culture, give different perspectives on what our relationship with nature is. We need to learn to make a footprint that supports life, not to minimize the damage. We think when you minimize our footprint, that would be good for the environment. But it just reduces destruction. 

The climate movement is important, but to solve it we need to look at the material problem. Climate change is not an energy problem, it is material mismanagement. So, looking at the problem from that perspective can help come up with much more elegant solutions to deal with climate change. I would say the best way to be successful in combating climate change is positive goals. Greta Thunberg and other activists are talking about how they want us to panic, to have fear, and to feel the pain. Under these stressful circumstances, we will not be progressive or productive. And if Greta tells people to panic, then we’ll give up basic human rights. 

So, at this point we need a positive goal, which means we need to get the same concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2100 that we had in 1900 or the planet will destroy itself. No boycott of airlines would ever help us reach that. We need many solutions, including rebuilding topsoil and creating a garden-based agriculture. 

Everything that is consumed, like food, shoes, or detergent, needs to be designed as a biological nutrient. Everything that is a service, like a washing machine, needs to be designed for the technosphere. A product which becomes waste just has a quality problem. It’s not an ethical category anymore, it’s just an innovation opportunity. And this is how we can use now 40 years of environmental debate, the blame and shame, as an innovation engine which allows us to come up with completely new and different products. Additionally, these new products are often much cheaper to make and better for health purposes. 

If you own a company, sustainability can make the customer your enemy. A company like Patagonia tells its customers, if you do not buy my stuff, it’s better. This is a radical unique sales proposition but it does not make sense. Our material flows need to support all species, like a cherry tree in spring. It’s not about the three R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle, anymore. It’s about rethink, reinvent, redesign, and then from there you can move to the three Rs. 

We need to look far more at religious, cultural, and psychological aspects of production processes, not just at the technical issues. Americans have five times more single-use products than we have in Europe. This is because of culture. The United States is so massively sex-obsessed that everything is related to sex in a certain way. For example, virgin materials. This is a term that is only used in the United States. Virgin implies that Americans cannot touch something which has been touched by somebody else before. In Europe, we talk about buying our raw materials, but in the US they talk about virgin materials and you cannot recycle virgins.