At the time that I read Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, I was looking for information about sustainability...looking for ways to enjoy food, travel, and especially clothing without the consumption guilt that had been gradually creeping in.
I'm not sure what I expected, but this book was not exactly it. It was better. It is concise and positive, not dry and gloomy. I expected to learn that in order to avoid drowning in a toxic soup of our own making, certain things would simply have to be off-limits, and that we will all will need to just wear hemp sacks going forward. Instead I found optimism, examples of innovation, and notions of abundance.
The book is not specifically about fashion; in 2006, when I purchased it, it was still very difficult to find books about that. But it turned out to be a good starting point in my quest for information. In short, these authors, who are actually an architect and a chemist by training, have offered us not just information, but a framework for tapping the power of humanity to build forward-thinking, healthy solutions.
In their view, we are still operating with an Industrial Revolution mindset: production in volume is efficient, resources are unlimited, Mother Earth will absorb all sins. During that earlier period of development, nature was a force to be tamed, and quality of life improvements were worth the resulting pollution. Waste could be sent "away".
Environmentalism in recent decades has proceeded by promoting ways of being "less bad". Businesses can still pollute, but only in these limited amounts. A textile company can still apply carcinogenic finishes to upholstery, but the labor must be completed in another country, away from the United States. According to McDonough and Braungart, the need for regulation of industry signals design failures and a lack of imagination, not an environmental mandate for resolving pollution concerns.
Instead of trying to corral nature and place limits on commerce, Cradle to Cradle outlines methodology for creating positive outcomes. Materials that clean air and purify water can be used for products, while still supporting the hoped-for, and necessary, business outcome of making a profit. Initial costs for healthier materials might seem expensive, but they often save money over time. Water can emerge from an industrial operation ready to be consumed by people as drinking water. Industrial materials (dubbed "technical nutrients") can be used in a closed loop, instead of released to incinerators or landfills, where they cause further harm to people and soil.
In the view of McDonough and Braungart, solutions and designs must be local in order to address these challenges. Extreme, one-size-fits all formulations (for soap, for a factory that builds cars, for upholstery fabric) which can seem necessary are not only wreaking havoc on our natural world, but they are adding challenges in unanticipated ways. Structures and products which are married to the environment of their origins can also nourish their origins, rather than deplete them. In this model, "waste equals food" and there is no "away"; if we are forced to live next to our "waste", we will find ways to use it and improve it.
All of this can seem far-fetched, but McDonough and Braggart are heavy hitters with serious resumes. They have worked with such industry leaders as Herman Miller, Ford and Nike. They cite examples of their theories in practice, and it is exciting. They remind us that separating environmentalism from industry is counter-productive, and they share concrete examples of why that is.
If you want to feel better about the potential we have to turn the boat around, to reframe humans as a force for good on this earth, read this book.