The Upcycle

23 May 2013

This blog encourages thinking with a zoom lens mind. Like a photographic zoom lens, mentally zooming out to a wide angle view provides context and prospective. Given Photographer - Dreamstimecontext and prospective, one can rationally prioritize, then zoom in to tight focus on areas for action [1].

Today’s business environment, with its global scope and its rapid and accelerating rate of change, needs frequent zoomed out reality checks. One of Jera Sustainable Development’s roles is to provide smaller manufacturers with a zoomed out view. This post examines ideas from a pair of Sustainability thought leaders

and The Upcycle

William McDonough, an American architect, and Michael Braungart, a German chemist, combined to write Cradle to Cradle [3]. C2C, published in 2002, discusses product design, with emphasis on materials utilization efficiency in an environmental context.  C2C proposes that product design consider negative effects, especially toxicity, to humans and the natural world at every step in the product’s value chain, including disposition when the product is no longer useful.  In essence, C2C goes beyond “cradle to grave” design, which ends at a landfill or an incinerator, to “cradle to cradle” design, where non-toxic materials are reclaimed, recycled or reused in generation after generation of products.

Recently, the same two authors published The Upcycle [4]. The Upcycle goes beyond being a sequel to C2C. Rather, as its title implies, it is an expansion on C2C, based on experience — in this case, a decade of experience. Think of The Upcycle as another generation of the same product, rather like release 1.0 and release 2.0 of a software package.

Here are a few of the key ideas from The Upcycle:

>> More good, rather than less bad
: The general approach to environmental impacts and human well-being is to do less bad — reduce atmospheric emissions, reduce industrial accidents and reduce waste to landfill, for example. The Upcycle asserts that reduction, even reduction to zero, isn’t sufficient. Production should aim beyond shrinking its negative footprint on the world to producing an increasing positive footprint. Where the term “sustainability” confers a sense of steady state, “upcycle” suggests continuing improvement, product generation over product generation

>> Design as a latchkey to abundance
: I bought The Upcycle because of its subtitle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance. The book proposes that design — tangible product design, as well as process and systems design — can lead to upcycling, and that an emphasis on upcycling leads away from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance.

“Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”

                                                                                                        The Upcycle, page 7

>> “Biosphere” vs. “Technosphere”
: The Upcycle distinguishes between the “biosphere” — the natural world and its biological cycles — and the “technosphere” — the realm of the synthetic. Natural products and natural cycles provide models for design within the technosphere. However, the recovery processes in the two spheres differ significantly, such that mixing natural materials with synthetic materials in the same product may impair upcycling.

>> Regarding toxicity
: C2C and The Upcycle both regard toxicity as both cumulative and pernicious. Cradle to cradle design relies on detailed assessment of the potential toxicology of all components of every material used in the manufacture of a product. The level of concern goes well beyond most governmental regulations on toxicity, as they existed at the beginning of the current century.

For Smaller Manufacturers

In an emerging field of thought like Sustainability, the pioneers define the field and significantly affect those who follow. McDonough and Braungart are thought leaders in that sense. Braungart, the chemist, with his emphasis on toxicity, perhaps even more so than McDonough. Braungart’s ideas on product toxicity are reflected in the European Union’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) and RoHS (Restriction on Hazardous Substances) regulations. These regulations apply to imports into the E.U., as well as to products made in Europe. The State of California has regulations that are very similar to these European regulations. As I was writing this post (21 May 2013), I learned that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has proposed that the Environmental Protection Agency should U.S. producers to copy EPA on toxicity information provided to the European Union or to other nations under regulations such as those mentioned above [5]. Like it or not, thought leaders can affect your business. That’s why it is important to make time to zoom all the way out.

The Upcycle
provides the term “enchanted skepticism”, which describes my general reaction to that book. Some of the ideas are fascinating. I’m quite convinced that radical improvements in materials utilization, across product generations, are possible. Recent product and process design innovations in the automobile industry and in building construction present interesting cases in point, although The Upcycle affords little attention to either. Still, encouraging examples are one thing. Broad practicability across a wide range of manufactured products may be another.

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

Chuck - Brittany
…  Chuck Harrington

: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on Wednesday evenings.

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[2]Thought Leader is a term first coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine, Strategy & Business and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention. It has since evolved into a catch phrase describing someone who is supposed to have progressive and innovative ideas”. — Wikipedia


[3] McDonough, William and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, North Point Press, New York (2002)


[4] McDonough, William and Michael Braungart, The Upcycle, North Point Press, New York (2013)