Book Review: The Upcycle

Repost. Written July 2013.

The Upcycle; Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

The Upcycle Book

The Upcycle  is a must-read for anyone interested in sustainability AND for all those who doubt sustainability.

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.

McDonough and Braungart return with their second book after a decade where they have thoroughly tested and expanded their thinking. The Upcycle is a manifesto of sorts, through slight repetition and an almost lecture-like writing style, the authors provide extensive examples and plenty of room for growth while constantly encouraging their readers to look at the bigger picture and get involved “starting now”.
The Upcycle opens with a brief foreword by past President Bill Clinton and an excellent summary (with a few clarifications) of their first book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. This allows all readers to refresh or catch up with the background of McDonough and Braungarts’s thinking without the need to do any “homework research” before starting the book.

I first read Cradle to Cradle earlier this year after a recommendation from a friend, and while I found the ideas interesting, I found the book as a whole repetitive and the writing style a bit uppity (for example, my dad could not even get past the introduction). Ultimately, the main points I took from Cradle to Cradle were a) there is a way to make things that are good for us and the earth without harmful chemicals, and b) think about sustainability in a positive way.

The Upcycle clarifies this point and expands it further; people, businesses, and society over the past decade have defined sustainability and their goals for it as “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (to put it briefly), or “Stop doing/wanting/tossing that you terrible person you”. Instead, The Upcycle  pushes readers to constantly strive to improve  the world around them and the future…

“If design is a signal of intention, even small steps in the right direction, within a positive and anticipatory framework, can create a ripple of effects.” (The Upcycle, pg 70)


Yes for bringing your own reusable grocery bags because you choose to and remembered to bring them, Yes for riding your bike on a beautiful day because it makes you happy and you can, Yes for striving to become a more conscientious shopper and considering not only the ethics but also the materials of what you buy because it affects your health and the lives of people around the globe, Yes for paying more attention to how you dispose of anything because it makes a positive difference in every aspect of the future, Yes for sharing your knowledge and Yes for continually improving bit by bit.

I believe we should all applaud ourselves every step of the way, because when you enjoy something it becomes an easy habit to keep up and spread to others.

Then, the book moves through various aspects of our world which are, or have been, designed:

  • How do we make this better?
  • How can our design of this give back to or improve the community and the earth?
  • How can we make this ____ better for the next person who comes along and uses it?
  • Why does this need regulations, how can we design it so that it does not need regulations?
  • Where are our materials coming from?
  • Where will these materials go in the next 10, 20, 30 or more years?  What are our materials made up of?
  • How can we eat a fresh, local, organic strawberry in my office, in Denmark, in the middle of winter?

This matters because ultimately, we could be one big team living on a beautiful planet and thriving abundantly, or we could play a game of he said/she said and “how does one move to the Moon?”, or worse.

Thinking/acting/anticipating positively = greater results.

Sustainability ≠ less.

These highlight some of the main points of The Upcycle , but for the abundance of examples, explanations, and challenges in fields such as business (large/small), food, energy, waste, building/design/materials, and daily life I encourage everyone to grab a copy of The Upcycle and your favorite cuppa, curl up and enjoy. The future is bright!

REPOST. This book review was originally posted on the now-extinct portfolio website,, in July 2013.


Published by Alex Setmajer

Sustainability professional driven to help the world continually become a more sustainable place.

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