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Lonnie Shekhtman headshot

William McDonough's 'The Upcycle' Knows No Bounds

Whatever beautiful religion William McDonough is preaching in his new book with longtime business partner Michael Braungart, I’m a believer. McDonough, of Cradle to Cradle fame, is undoubtedly sustainability’s sage, advising in The Upcycle, released last week, that it’s time we move beyond designing and creating things that are less bad (traditional sustainability principles) to creating things and systems that are actually beneficial (The Upcycle’s utopian vision).

The new book is a continuation of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which McDonough and Braungart published in 2002. In that book, they proclaimed that humans don’t have a pollution problem; we have a design problem. They introduced a holistic framework for the design of products and systems that are efficient and waste-free.

Today, they say let’s do better; let’s shift our thinking from designing for less waste to designing for abundance, using only materials and ingredients that are nutritive. If we designed intelligently from the get-go, the authors explain, we wouldn’t have to operate from a perspective of sustaining the status quo and mitigating waste and toxicity via "reduce, reuse, recycle." We could replace that idea with "redesign, renew and regenerate."

After all, “Who would want simply a ‘sustainable’ marriage?’” the authors ask. “Humans can certainly aspire to more than that.”

Yes, we can.

One example of operating on the principle of "do less bad," the authors point to is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), a good intention gone awry. Yes, this light bulb is more efficient and saves us money on electricity, but if you break one, you’ll have to reference an entire page of EPA instructions on cleaning up hazardous waste.

Step 1: “Have people and pets leave the room, and avoid the breakage area on the way out.”

After breaking a light bulb? This is a crippling drawback.

“If you design knowingly using a toxin or a questionable material in your work, how talented are you really?” the authors question.

One solution to this type of shortsightedness, according to The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance, is for businesses to place values before metrics at the onset of every design process or business decision. Putting metrics first does lead to short-term gains, but not to innovation, which is a long-term, game-changing solution.

Here’s how the book explains it:

And innovation, by definition, cannot be benchmarked [benchmarks against existing conditions]. It’s not merely an improvement on a flawed (‘less bad’) system. Wikipedia and Google probably didn’t benchmark the Encyclopedia Britannica and say, ‘We will have 200 times as many entries.’ They reinvented the whole notion of an information resource and access.

There’s also the issue of how we frame sustainability-related messages. McDonough and Braungart suggest a simple shift of intentions and language from negative ("We will reduce our use of fossil fuels") to positive ("By 2020, our goal is to power with renewables"). This seems minor, but it makes a world of difference.

One example the authors used to demonstrate this concept was an effort in 2007 by San Diego to introduce an idea for addressing its water shortage problems: recycling sewage water. The purification process would have delivered cleaner water than the tap water residents were drinking at the time. Unfortunately, the city didn’t proactively market the program or even give it a name. When journalists dubbed it “Toilet to Tap,” a disgusting concept, residents shunned the program.

On the other hand, the authors point out, Singapore took on the same challenge, marketing the program as “NEWater,” a refreshing and innovative concept. Today, the country recycles 30 percent of its sewage water, with the final product exceeding drinking water standards set by the EPA and the WHO.

The authors provide many real-life examples like these of companies and cities successfully utilizing The Upcycle principles. The Buddhist-like shift in consciousness and intentions that the authors prescribe in their profoundly optimistic and hopeful new book is the right way, maybe the only way, to approach our evolving relationship with the world around us.

I hope every university design and business program in the world makes this book required reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @kuurlyq

[Image courtesy of mcdonough.com] 

Lonnie Shekhtman headshotLonnie Shekhtman

Lonnie Shekhtman is a Massachusetts-based writer covering sustainable business, food systems, social enterprises and impact investing. Stay in touch by following Lonnie on Twitter: @kuurlyq.

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