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The Upcycle: How We Can Design a Better World



“The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power - economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.” ~ The Upcycle


After several years since the book’s publication, I finally read The Upcycle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart. I can’t say that it was an easy read, and I liked their first book Cradle to Cradle a great deal more. Nevertheless, here are my takeaways.


The author

s’ previous book Cradle to Cradle focused on product design and defined materials into two groups, biological and technical, where they would be endlessly remade into different uses. The design strategy encouraged one to focus and expand upon good, healthy ingredients. The Upcycle attempts how every one of us, from the CEO to the customer, can use the Cradle to Cradle protocol to create a better world for abundance, proliferation, delight. The book provides beautiful examples of its Cradle to Cradle system. It showcases companies that manufacture products such as fabric and toilet paper, which contributed positively to the environment through the manufacturing and/or disposal process by eliminating harmful chemicals and materials. The book takes a deep dive into how soil health can be built up through regenerative design of our waste system.


The Upcycle, however, is more philosophical than definitive in giving most of us the tools to incorporate the Cradle to Cradle framework. It does provide general guidelines for the boardroom or the individual designer/inventor. But what about the rest of us, who are but a cog in the machine? “Everyone has different qualifications and different talents, thankfully. We will need that diversity.” If anything, the book promotes the idea of “upcycle” as a positive outlook that the human race has as much potential to provide positive contributions to the planet as we do negative ones. In other words, we, too, can have a positive footprint.


Some general design guidelines for the designer in all of us are

  1. Be intentional. Focus on using only healthy materials.

  2. Respect. Understand that all is interconnected, and ask what cascading effects will the product or process have.

  3. Optimize. As valuable as metrics are, these numbers can also impose limits. Instead of stating a numeric goal, such as 20%, strive for a more general one. It is also helpful to state the good “rather than just articulating the bad.”

For businesses, information on materials constitutes power since consumers are now demanding more transparency of their products. Innovation can also be affordable, especially if creativity is allowed in the design process. These innovations also serve as inspiration to other companies. “The job of upcycle advocates is to encourage people and to inspire behaviors, helping all entities understand that change is possible, beneficial, profitable.”


The Cradle to Cradle design framework encourages continuous improvement where innovative products and their production create positive contributions to the world. Upcycling is a positive, forward-looking, expanding movement, no matter how small the steps are.

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