Cradle-to-cradle™ and the circular economy: are we kidding ourselves on consumption?

Cradle-to-cradle™ and the circular economy: are we kidding ourselves on consumption?

With the recently presented Circular Economy Package (CEP) the EU wants to implement what chemist-turned-business visionary Michael Braungart and his architect friend William McDonough have trademarked cradle-to-cradle™:  In a circular economy no product goes to waste that is from cradle to grave, every material re-enters the production/consumption cycle – from cradle to cradle. Let’s not get carried away by a good idea.

“Imagine a world in which all the things we make, use, and consume provide nutrition for nature and industry—a world in which growth is good and human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint.”[1]

This is how the former Greenpeace chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough envision their ideal world. The many troubles plaguing our current economic – and by extension political – system boil down to a question of design, argue Braungart and McDonough: “The destructive qualities of today’s cradle-to-grave industrial system can be seen as the result of a fundamental design problem, not the inevitable outcome of consumption and economic activity.”

Yes and no.

Yes, it makes perfect sense to turn waste into a resource, to re-use and to ‘upcycle’ what otherwise would go to waste. It is vital to decrease our pressure on resources. We should extract maximum value from resources while they are used, and then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. Yes, we need – we want! – better, circular design.

Unfortunately, the EU CEP reveals how far Europeans are from that circular dream:

On 2 December 2015 the EU Commission presented the CEP regulatory tools by which the traditional linear economy, the make-use-dispose model, shall be transformed into a circular economy. At its most basic, the CEP is the large-scale implementation of cradle-to-cradle, whose benchmark index ‘resource productivity’ should sooner or later approximate 100%. That’s called closing the loop. Alas, on 2 December the EU had to admit that even a 30% target for 2030 is too ambitious; resource productivity continues to hover in the mid-20%.

This is not to say that we should abandon the positive vision circularity offers in times of ecological collapse – on the contrary. But we must keep a sense of proportion, we must keep it real, not least because cradle-to-cradle entails the sincere promise of moral salvation: one day in the future we will consume without compunction, reads the subtext in Braungart and Donough’s publications.

Trouble sets in if this consumer utopia serves to absolve us of any responsibility for our consumer pathologies here and now. These ethical questions about our “human activities” that is consumption are snubbed by Braungart and McDonough as petty ‘small is beautiful’ sustainability thinking.

Don’t they notice that they owe their success to the uncomfortable ethical question raised by our unsustainable consumption – is economic growth good? – which they manage to ignore by focusing on materials and design.

Should we in all earnest replace this and other ethical questions with an imagined future consumer heaven – a time which by definition never materializes? I wish we could. But the scrapped 30% target for 2030 gives a resounding answer: No, we should not. A circular economy is not just around the corner. Ethical questions do matter.

Whilst it makes perfect sense to “imagine a world in which growth is good and human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint,” we must also realize that we are still kidding ourselves on consumption. This crisis is only superficially a material one.


[1] http://www.mcdonough.com/speaking-writing/the-cradle-to-cradle-alternative/

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    Renata
    28/04/2016, 8:25 pm

    Interesting point of view.

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