What does "Cradle to Cradle" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term Cradle To Cradle or “C2C” is used to describe a sustainability model which is imitative of natural processes, with the goal of enriching and benefiting the environment even as products are manufactured and used. The underlying principle of this concept is that in nature, there is no waste: when a tree falls, for example, it isn't thrown away, but it is rather broken down into component parts which benefit the surrounding environment. Using these techniques, manufacturers can mimic nature and ensure that little to nothing is wasted.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Walter Stahel is credited with coining the term in the 1970s. A number of people worked on fleshing out the cradle to cradle idea, and developing standards which could be used in product certification. The term is meant to contrast with the “cradle to grave” approach in most manufacturing, in which products are discarded after they outlive their usefulness.

In cradle to cradle manufacturing, components are broken into “technical” and “biological” categories. A technical component is a synthetic product which is not toxic, and created in an environmentally friendly way. It is also designed to be used again and again in a closed loop, with the manufacturer avoiding “downcycling.” A classic example of downcyling is paper, which may start out as a sheet of bleached writing paper before being recycled to make a lesser quality recycled paper, which may be recycled again to make an even coarser paper or cardboard product, and so forth.

Biological components are of biological origin, and they can be naturally broken down and returned to the environment after use. A cornstarch cup is an example of a biological component, as it can be used and then composted, with the compost supplying nutrients to a crop, garden, or natural area.

Companies which espouse the C2C philosophy work on creating products which can actively benefit the environment, and on creating closed manufacturing cycles which allow them to keep using the same technical components over and over again, rather than discarding them. One of the key concepts is the idea that “waste is food,” which really means that there should be no waste products in cradle to cradle manufacturing, because products can either be reused and returned to the cycle, or organically broken down for use as food for the natural environment.

This environmentally friendly approach to manufacturing can also be applied to other areas of life, such as running a household. Some critics of the cradle to cradle philosophy argue that the restriction of the ability to issue certification to a small group of individuals goes against the stated goal of spreading the concept and encouraging people to adopt it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - Yeah, I have no problem with downcycling as long as the material eventually ends up (beneficially) back in the soil. The only problem with that is that I don't think we are technologically advanced enough right now to have original cradle to cradle designs for everything we need that are also inexpensive enough that people will choose to use them over existing designs.


@croydon - Honestly, getting people enthusiastic about recycling only solves part of the problem. A lot of materials we use today are simply not very good for recycling. You can maybe recycle them once and then the material can't be used again.

From cradle to cradle means designing the materials so that they will be able to be recycled over and over again. I mean, if you think about it, it would be easier to just make plastic from a material that can be composted than it would be to try and convince people to sort through all the different types. That way you could just throw all the plastic into a pit like we always do, but it would eventually turn into soil.

That's not a very realistic idea, I know, but it's an example of how we need to change the way we make things, as well as the way we recycle them.


Whenever I start feeling down about the state of the environment I think about the fact that it doesn't have to be that way. Civilization is not intrinsically unsustainable. If more people were willing to recycle, I think we'd all be able to live in plenty and still have a thriving natural world around us. The cradle to cradle concept is one way of doing this.

The trouble is that people never got used to recycling and don't see the need because it doesn't directly effect them. They think, oh, what's one more can in the garbage going to hurt, when it isn't just one, it's one per day, per person and that is a lot of unrecycled cans.

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