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The Upcycle: Book Review

How refreshing to read a new book by positive, innovative thinkers! William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of The Upcycle, did not just borrow ideas; they are encouraging us all to invent new futures for all of humanity.

Their overriding definition of upcycle: “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.”

“A Design Problem”

The authors stress repeatedly that we do not have “a pollution problem.” We have “a design problem.” In other words, the goal isn’t to live in darkness in tiny houses, driving only tiny cars, and reducing our enjoyment of life. What we need to do as a species is invent new designs that make better use of the resources we have.

Hundreds of fascinating examples in the book show how these upcycling experts help organizations achieve their ends without compromising their true needs. A persistent weakness in industry, they explain, is the tendency to “frame” problems in ways that limit solutions to methods that have already been tried.

For example, when tungsten incandescent light bulbs were framed as a problem because they consume too much energy, the goal became to produce a light bulb that used less energy. The solution? Compact fluorescents (CFLs). Goal achieved…but what an awful solution! CFLs contain highly toxic mercury which must be processed as hazardous waste and which endangers health with poisonous vapor if a bulb breaks. They’re difficult to upcycle, and they also produce large amounts of EMFs (electromagnetic frequencies).

In a Different Light

How could we reframe that problem, the authors ask? What if we asked a different question: How can we produce enough light for our needs–using less energy–and without harming the earth or ourselves? A beautiful light that looks and feels good to be around? Framing makes a real-world difference. Although LED lights are still expensive, they are proof that we’re getting much closer to a product that solves all three needs–a wonderful light that uses less energy and can more easily be upcycled.

“A [government] regulation is an indicator of the need to redesign,” the authors say. Businesses often find themselves at odds with consumer and environmental groups, which often results in new regulation. The problem with this cycle is that businesses that are designed inefficiently from the start become even moreso after courts get involved. When regulation forces new systems onto a business indefinitely, inefficiency is actually increased. The energy sector is a great example, but many sectors of the economy can be made more efficient with bottom-up redesign.

“Nature has no waste,” the authors assert. Whatever one organism emits is good for another organism or process. We are part of nature. As one reviewer responded to The Upcyle: “We can meet our obligations to preserve the earth during our visit without inflicting damage if we create each design by valuing equity, ecology, and revenue generation from the start.”

Finally, the authors note, “A declaration of intention, loud and clear, can often be influential enough to drive innovation.” Our designers and engineers are smart and innovative. What would happen if our culture encouraged each of us to use our creative forces to demand the best for the earth, for all of humanity, and for our businesses and other organizations as well? We can always do better. And this book’s inspiration is contagious: “The upcycle is about a shift to a delightful, safe, healthy abundance.” It’s not about panic or fear.

Doing Our Part

At Savvy Rest we are committed to producing a natural mattress from sustainable materials that have a long lifecycle. Our Talalay latex is Cradle-to-Cradle™ certified, our Dunlop latex is GOLS certified, and our organic cotton fabric is GOTS certified. The mattresses themselves are Greenguard GOLD certified. These are strong steps toward greater sustainability. But there is still work to be done, particularly in learning how to upcycle more materials after the products’ life. That’s a complex but achievable goal. Meanwhile, our own inspiration is that we will never stop trying to figure out how to do it better.

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