Cradle to Cradle certification: Recognition for companies that want to be good rather than less bad.
In 2002, the German chemist Michael Braungart, together with American architect William McDonough, published a book explaining a ‘circle of life’ approach to product development where quality products are developed in such a way that their materials can be endlessly re-used.
Since publication, the concept of Cradle to Cradle® has become one of the most influential approaches to innovative product design and corporate social responsibility, and has inspired the establishment of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
As administrators of the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM Products Program, the institute works with leaders from academia, the NGO environmental community, government and industry to implement a standard for assessing and constantly improving products. Those that meet the stringent criteria of this rating system receive a Cradle to Cradle certification mark.
Herewith an interview with Bridgett Luther, President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, by Daan Elffers.
As material scarcity becomes an increasing issue for the planet, Bridgett Luther outlines the opportunities and benefits that are becoming increasingly appealing for businesses using the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program as a pathway to boost their bottom line.
Please tell us about the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
The main goal of the institute is to make Cradle to Cradle the number one preferred gold standard for sustainability around the world.
Our organisation is leading this very smart Cradle to Cradle system – the system which our co-founders and supporters believe will bring about the next industrial revolution. At the institute, we focus on one very specific leverage point: how things are made. This is such a big deal – so pervasive, and so ripe for transformation – it’s a major strategic leverage point for revolutionizing the global commerce system.
The core function of the institute is basically to manage and continuously improve a public, third-party verified program for designing and manufacturing safe and healthy products, in the context of so much more than a ‘regular’ circular economy model. We also work to increase the number of individuals and organizations qualified to help designers and manufacturers through this process.
What are the benefits of Cradle to Cradle certification?
The benefits of pursuing Cradle to Cradle product certification are diverse and range from saving resources, raising environmental standards, averting regulatory risk and organizing a company’s supply chain to simply attracting the best talent. But the real payoff is having the opportunity in the long term to manufacture innovating, safe and healthy products in wide markets that redefine quality and beauty in ways that are in line with informed consumer expectations. Let’s face it, lovely-looking products that have health risks to people or the environment can’t really realistically be beautiful or high quality.
The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program provides product designers and manufacturers with systems-based guidance and accountable metrics for turning the making of something into a positive force for society and the planet. More specifically, while ‘material reutilisation’ is one of the characteristics of a certified product, there are four other quality categories that make the program about so much more than “closed loop”; these are material health, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness.
If all industries would commit to the Cradle to Cradle certification process they would unite in creating polymers, resins, foams and surfactants, for example, that are safe for people and the planet. In fact, our 10 year goal is to allow every penny we make to fund some of that research for new materials.
What we really hope is that no economy has to repeat what McDonough and Braungart call a ‘strategy of tragedy’. With positive innovations in hand, there’s no reason to repeat the mistakes of the industrial systems of previous centuries.
It’s not by chance that the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is based in California. In your view, what have been the reasons for California’s success in terms of getting sustainability off the ground?
California is a good launching pad, because our state is far ahead of other regions of the US in terms of environmental standards and are continuing to push the envelope. What drives this is that there are simply so many people here. Currently the population is around 35 million, and that’s expected to grow to 60 million by 2050.
You can talk to people who grew up and lived in Los Angeles in the 1960s who remember a time when the air was almost unbreathable. It was just a visible grey pall that was there all the time, and because people could literally see the problem of air pollution it led to California stepping up legislation on exhaust emissions and climate change. So California has been on the leading edge for a long time.
Energy efficiency and renewable technologies weren’t really on the scene until California took the lead and created legislation regarding carbon emissions. This sent a very clear message to the market, and it was a message that was heard by venture capitalists who then put a lot of money into renewables and raised awareness of these issues.
People may think it was Al Gore’s movie which got everybody all excited about sustainability, but I’m absolutely convinced that all the venture capital investment in sustainable technology would not have happened if Governor Schwarzenegger had not created markets for that technology in companies based in California.
I can also say with confidence that it was the book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by Michael Braungart and William McDonough that inspired much of the thinking behind the move to better materials in products. The people who worked in the Department of Toxic Substances Control read their book and realised they could actually imagine a world where the state wouldn’t need a Department of Toxics any more if all materials were captured, recycled or composted.
Companies that want to be good rather than less bad don’t want to use any hazardous materials at all. What are the key challenges during the process of phasing out, and what are the opportunities?
One of the challenges is that as companies go through the certification programme, they may find that some of the materials needed haven’t yet been invented! It is estimated that about 67% of materials needed do not yet exist. Similarly we’re finding that there are lots of safe and healthy materials out there, except nobody knows about them.
Company after company is saying they would replace the hazardous materials they use with ones that are safe for people and the planet if they could, but they just don’t have access to materials that offer these benefits. At the institute our aim is to enter into conversations with companies.
If you consider that 67% of what we need hasn’t even been invented, then somebody is missing an incredible opportunity. It’s a huge market opportunity that chemical companies in particular aren’t really looking at, but should be, because it could actually affect their bottom line and increase their business. They have the capacity now to create the materials that people are going to be asking for in the future.
So it’s about products, but it’s also about innovation and creating new markets. As more people demand Cradle to Cradle Certified products, so the demand for safe and healthy materials will increase. When more companies come on board, very quickly – commercially speaking within three to five years – we’ll actually see a boatload of new materials being invented.
One of the key elements of the Cradle to Cradle principle is material reutilisation.
How does the Cradle to Cradle model turn the limitations of material scarcity into sustainable abundance, and what steps need to be put in place?
Let’s look at a couple of everyday examples. Firstly, I was left an amazing old-style toaster by my grandmother. It was 25 years old and worked perfectly but I didn’t use it as it didn’t have all the features I want and it was very energy-inefficient. The better solution would have been to send it somewhere where its parts and components could be recovered and used to make a better toaster! Similarly, when my father passed away I inherited his car with really poor miles per litre. Now I’m stuck with this huge asset with poor fuel consumption. If my father had leased it, I could have taken it back, and swapped it for a new model.
So this is where recovery and reuse strategies, as a key part of the Cradle to Cradle principle, gets really interesting, because crucially it allows consumers to feel good about consuming. They’re participating in the creation of better products and helping to create morally responsible jobs.
The key requirement is that a product is designed for reuse right from the start, so that when it gets to a recycling facility the materials can be pooled and deployed effectively, reclaiming biological and technical nutrients. There may be some great materials in a chair that can be reused, but if the chair hasn’t been designed properly then it is difficult to get those materials back.
Secondly, it’s vital to have the infrastructure in place to collect the old products for recycling. Are you going to deploy someone to come and pick up your stuff, or will individuals need to take their things to a depot where they will be effectively processed? There’s so much wasted potential here; in simple terms, my mailman comes up delivering my mail yet goes away empty-handed. The postal service could be a big part of ‘optimizing the nutrient stream’.
We have to change our mindset. In simple terms it’s figuring out how to change the dynamic where the plastic bottle is just as valuable as the aluminium can, because producing virgin plastic gets too expensive. And when it comes to material scarcity, the biggest problem that we’re going to be facing is with rare earth minerals. We are sending valuable resources overseas instead of using them to re-energize American manufacturing businesses and jobs.
What’s more, the electronic waste that goes to various countries overseas is not recycled fully; in many cases they only take out the high value materials and everything else goes to landfill or is incinerated. Our estimate is that only about 10% of an old computer, for example, is actually getting turned into a new one. We should be taking advantage of the valuable materials that we are now throwing and/or sending away, turning them into resources for a revitalized manufacturing sector.
As soon as we start to make that sort of mental change, we’ll really be making progress. That’s one of the things I love about Cradle to Cradle: we talk about end of use, not end of life. We’re getting more people to think this way and changing the language accordingly. Trends we see heading in this direction include reverse logistics, urban mining, and extended producer responsibility.
When no-one sees a trash truck any more but only a ‘resource recovery wagon’ we hear the circular economy model at its best, moving forward in the public’s attitude. This is how we start to change our actions for the better.
What can we expect to see from the institute over the next few years? What will be your key focus areas?
Cradle to Cradle is the only certification of its kind that gives a visible indication of the entire sustainability of a product. Because of the multi-attribute criteria, it’s the best way to communicate a product’s sustainable attributes to the consumer, and shows that the company producing it is committed to making the world a better place.
People look for labels which clearly show what’s in a certain product, so they know what’s in them (which has fuelled the growth of a whole organic food movement), or on them (such as lotions and shampoos). So labelling products with Cradle to Cradle certification is a top priority, and consumers are going to see a lot more marketing and brand communications around certification.
Clarity regarding the benefits of the product is paramount. We don’t want it to be just a boutique thing; we want it to be bigger and better and more mainstream than that.
To achieve this, we’re encouraging companies to get certified, and our certification levels rise from basic to bronze, silver, gold and platinum. What’s so good about this is that you receive credit for moving in the right direction, and people can distinguish between those companies that are just starting on the sustainability road and those that are much more optimized.
We’re already covering a variety of sectors. Besides industrial applications, we also have considerable traction with textiles, and within the fashion industry. We’re continuing to work with Red Carpet Green Dress at the Academy Award’s ceremony as a part of our effort to move the industry towards Cradle to Cradle, and which will culminate in a campaign that openly shows key industry people acknowledging their preference for Cradle to Cradle Certified products.
We are focused on shifting the mindsets of manufacturers and designers to meet the expectations of those we see as the Cradle to Cradle generation: healthy children who grow up surrounded by products that keep them safe and healthy while raising their quality of life – something we believe every child everywhere in the world deserves.
Over the next years we’ll be employing this focus on healthy children to deepen the acceptance and embracing of Cradle to Cradle product innovations for homes, schools, clothing and textiles, and a range of other products for infants and children.
Ultimately, companies that embrace Cradle to Cradle are doing so because they see that they can grow thriving businesses in ways that create sustainable abundance, health, and even happiness. Once that light goes on in a business person’s mind, they ask why anyone would want to make products in any other way. In this world, commerce, consumption, business, and investment can make you feel good and enlightened, not guilty.