The Upcycle: The Next Step In The Cradle To Cradle Revolution

William McDonough’s newest book picks up where his groundbreaking Cradle to Cradle left off, advocating that we continue to revolutionize our business practices to make them as sustainable as possible, while still making things we want to use.

The Upcycle: The Next Step In The Cradle To Cradle Revolution
Abstract via Shutterstock

This week, architect William McDonough released his first book in over a decade: The Upcycle. Considering the impact that his last book had on the world of sustainable design, we should all pay attention.


William McDonough has long been famous for his work as an architect, but it wasn’t until 2002 that he became well-known outside the sustainable architecture world. That’s the year McDonough and his business partner Michael Braungart released Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things . The manifesto endorses closed-loop manufacturing processes, where products do no harm from the time they are produced to the end of life.

The book was more than just a hit–it triggered the launch of the nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute as well as a decade-long global discussion about “cradle to cradle” innovation.

In The Upcycle, McDonough and Braungart take the next step beyond just discussing the cradle to cradle philosophy; they now have over 10 years of experience implementing it in real products, and the book reflects that. “I think Cradle to Cradle put a fulcrum on the ground. For us, it was so much the opportunity to say, ‘What if you had some bedrock principles, and what would they be?'” explains McDonough. “We wrote this for two reasons: one is it allows us to use Cradle to Cradle as a fulcrum–the thing that does not move–and then what kind of levers would one use against that fulcrum?”

In some ways, The Upcycle is an updated version of Cradle to Cradle–one with numerous examples of how the book’s philosophy has worked in the past and how it can work in the future. But don’t read this book looking for a step-by-step guide on how to implement cradle to cradle thinking on a broad scale. The Upcycle is a book of what McDonough calls “evocation”–it paints ideas with broad strokes, imagining what might happen if we implemented them.

One of the many ideas suggested by McDonough and Braungart in the book: having a clothing designer create unpigmented clothes that angle light in such a way that the colors are just as beautiful as anything produced with a chemical dye, much like blue jay feathers refract light to create sharp colors.

I asked McDonough what he would say to anyone who believes the book is too optimistic–not an off-base thought considering that The Upcycle does propose completely overhauling the way humans do business. “It’s time for us to be childlike in our wonderment on this,” he says.


McDonough cites ecologism–the concept (discussed in the book) of political environmental efforts tamping down the negative effects of shoddy design–as one of the problems in the way we currently think about fixing the environment. “We get so focused on being efficient, we might forget the joy of life. It would be like saying to people we should all have our heads shaved so then we don’t need shampoo. On the other hand, let’s make fabulous shampoos that don’t [pollute],” he says. “It’s about being careful of fundamentalism. It’s gentle–we don’t use the word ‘must.'”

Ultimately, McDonough hopes that people get “surprise and delight instead of shock and awe” out of The Upcycle. This is the kind of advice that you’d give to a skeptical friend. But it’s also a balm for the weary environmentalist who has become bogged down in the details. It’s worth a read.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.