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Cradle to Cradle Design & Intelligent Materials Pooling
Alex Steffen, 26 Jun 05

Gil Friend is a systems ecologist and business strategist, and is the CEO of Natural Logic, an environmentally-focused strategy, design and management consultancy. He writes occasional essays on sustainable business for our Sustainability Sunday feature.

I spent two days recently at the "Cradle to Cradle Design & Intelligent Materials Pooling in Practice" workshop presented by Foundation for Global Community in Menlo Park, CA, exploring the fundamentals and the challenges of C2C, and a day of small group grappling with putting the concepts to work. Along the way, I got a good look at the challenges our industrial society still faces in building a bright green future.

Michael Braungart (co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC)) laid out his strategies for moving beyond making products less harmful to making products that support a sustainable future:

“We still have people talking about ‘sustainability’! Nothing is more boring. Are you proud if your marriage is ‘sustainable’? We feel guilty, and cut our hair to use less shampoo. It’s guilt management and celebrating mediocrity.“

Strong words. What does he mean?

Braungart showed gas chromatograph analyses of the toxics that offgas from products in everyday user, from electric shavers to childrens toys – “Pocket Polly emits more chemicals than gasoline station” – to even natural products like wood. He said we're creating “weapons of mass destruction” as we seal buildings, in the name of energy efficiency, full of products not designed for indoor use.

One indicative result: asthma is now the most prevalent children’s disease, with 40% of children suffering from allergies, vs 2-3% a few decades ago. “And smart people now go to business and law, not science.”

The key, Braungart advised, is the transformation of environmental issues into issue of quality. “First be effective -- do the right thing; then look for the right tools. Efficiency may be one of them, but there’s no point being more efficient at producing a harmful outcome."

The new design criteria, according to Braungart: Cost, function, esthetics, ecological intelligence, fairness, fun: Total Beauty Design. “It’s not beautiful if it’s toxic, and if you can’t make a living.” The design principles: Waste equals food; Use current solar income; Celebrate (don’t just respect) diversity.

We need to look at the molecules, it turns out. Braungart outlined “five steps of eco-effectiveness”:

_ Identify substances to eliminate
_ Personal preference (based on scientific experience) of what makes sense
_ Passive positive list
_ Active positive list
_ Re-invention (what do you really want)

He didn’t stop at five, since the next step was to build on this “creating strength” with “purchasing strength,” in which companies with common list of preferred materials pool their purchasing and logistics strengths to gain economies of scale and rationalize supply chains.

Two of many applications discussed: a complex product, and a relatively simple one.

The Ford Model U concept car is designed at 60,000 miles to go into an enzyme bath that will dissolve the whole product and filter out the glues, and “keep the intelligence of the materials in it.” Upcycling. “There’s no innovation in recycling.”

Shaw Industries (the country’s largest carpet company) sees C2C as its focus, according to Steve Bradfield, their Corporate Director of Environmental Affairs. “All the other stuff is transitional.”

“We’re looking way ahead; our EVP now talks about ‘what the company will look like in 25 yrs.’ It’s not about quarterly profit, but about how do you stay in business?” Bradfield notes. “C2C is a beautiful thing, even to a bean counter if it’s profitable.”

Shaw began its materials redesign in 1994, and “exited PVC in 2004." Product recovery is now at 50%, with a 30% recycle process efficiency; “so 25% of new backing from old tile… at this point, while energy savings of 56% nets to 14% (based on that 25% use).”

Shaw’s EcoWorx backing won a Presidential Green Chemistry award in 2003, as an alternative to PVC, with 40% recycled content. Among the business benefits: Shaw can get more of the thinner and 30% lighter carpet tile on a trailer (7000 square yard vs 4000).

This highlights the challenge we often see as companies struggle to comprehensively and accurately tally costs and benefits. How well this is done can guide business strategy as well as gate investment decisions – with significant competitiveness as well as profit impacts. (Life cycle assessment isn’t the whole answer. Nylon flooring will last 30 years, Bradfield notes, and that’s often the figure used in LCIs, but it’s generally pulled in seven.)

Note: MBDC announced the C2C certification system at the NeoCon conference in June, to evaluate and certify the quality of products based on the principles of Cradle to Cradle Design. As described in the launch announcement:

• Ingredient chemistry is researched for its potential impacts on human and environmental health, and strategies for phasing out any ingredients of concern must be in place;
• Product is recyclable following its use and a system for recovering and fully recycling the product has been identified;
• Manufacturing maximizes the use of current solar income and water quality; and
• Workplace and business practices are ethical and support employees and communities.


On the other hand, I spent a few days recently with several dozen CEOs, VPs environment, and risk management executives from a variety of companies, exploring the challenges of "environmental health and safety" implementation and results. The wide-ranging and universally high quality presentations included a brilliant and sweeping "futures scan" by a senior executive of a large energy company. It was captivating. It touched on everything from oil prices to geopolitics to China. And it didn't include a single word about greenhouse gases or climate change.

Food for thought.

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The point that 'sustainability is boring' early in the post is mild. In looking at US government materials, such as those promoting the Bush National Offshore Aquaculture Act - using acronym NOAA perhaps to take advantage of the reputation of the NOAA agency - the use of sustainability is being used from privatizing the ocean to forest logging and beyond.

Like the prevalent use of the term restoration, for things that will never be restored, many terms are being coopted in what recalls for me 'newspeak' from '84.

Posted by: Forest on 26 Jun 05

Although the ideas behind C2C sound great, the quote from Braungart is obnoxious:

“We still have people talking about ‘sustainability’! Nothing is more boring. Are you proud if your marriage is ‘sustainable’? We feel guilty, and cut our hair to use less shampoo. It’s guilt management and celebrating mediocrity.“

The quote exemplifies a superficial marketing mentality, the message being that we are going to save the planet by buying "fun" consumer products.

Guilt is not a bad thing, if one is doing something bad. It's part of being a mature adult who feels responsible for his or her own actions.

The most satisfying things in my life have been called boring. Working through difficult situations. Learning a challenging subject. Overcoming my own limitations.

In contrast, buying a completely recyclable carpet or an exciting eco-friendly shampoo rate rather low on the scale of important things in my life.

Posted by: bart on 28 Jun 05

yo bart, i think u'r missing the point. to me the point is that at this point, it wont be environmentalists that save the planet; if the planet will be saved it will be by the world's consumers... AND if the worlds consumers are going to save the planet rather than destroy it, they must demand and be supplied upcycleable products that result in net positive impact on economy and ecology have to be fun and desireable.

if not they will be consigned evermore to elitest health food boutiques and obscure web retailers trafficked by the duty-bound minority like you and me that go buy the right thing even if we can barely afford it. yes the transcendant aspects of one's life are more meaningful than shopping, but china and india in the midst of bringing on a couple billion more US-style shoppers online, and the upcycleability of what they demand and are supplied will define the future of our human ecology. from this standpoing the marketing that you speak dismissively of is far more powerful and meangingful than "superficial" in this day and age. yes like any half-assed student of Boudrillard i too wish that we were less subject to the power of marketing but... theres good in it too you know.

Anways, C2C and moving beyond the term "sustainable" in my mind is precisely worldchanging. imagining and creating stuff, shampoo or food or cars or homes or airplanes, that doesnt just reduce impact on the planet and our bodies and communities to zero, but actually improves all those things with a net positive impact, to undo previously wrought pollution and destruction, inspires me, and inspires entrepeneurs and leaders more motivated than me. (the kind of inspiration and imagination this blog as been so insightfully speaking to lately).
Create this kind of stuff and skillfully market it, and suddenly- imho- hope in the prospect of altering the precipice-oriented vector of the human economy does not seem misplaced.

i think that getting beyond "sustainable" means getting beyond consumerism as an environmental problem, and turning it into a solution. yes i too wish we all lived simpler, more bio-regionally and immediate-community oriented lives, but i also like eating bananas in january and listening to mp3's on my asian made DAP... which is to say that consumerism in the globalized market economy is not going away without some kind of species collapse.

i'd rather see a just, globally internconnected market economy fueled by ubiquitous upcycling, with positivie impacts to ecology and environment as by-products, rather than collapse.

oh yeah i forgot, that is what this blog is about and why i'm hear reading it. [/steps down from stack of phonebooks]

Posted by: sp0078 on 28 Jun 05

That is quite a spirited defense of eco-consumerism, sp0078! I'm afraid you found me out -- I'm a Viridian heretic, a non-believer.

I understand what you're saying, and I wish I could go along.

The Viridian worldview comes at an anomalous time in history, after 60 years of world peace and increasing energy use. Naturally it is technologically optimistic. Based on the experience of the last few decades, it's logical to think that the world can be saved by bright young people, with laptops and good taste.

Unfortunately, the rules are about to change. Looking forward, some of us see energy skyrocketing in cost, environmental catastrophe and economic disruption.

If such things come to pass (what human ecologist Richard Heinberg calls "sustainability with teeth"), we'll need spiritual and cultural values to get us through the tough times. Consumerism is too light and brittle to last very long.

C2C and other worldchanging ideas are a part of the solution, I think, but only a part. I keep in mind Paul and Anne Ehrlich's formula for environmental impact, roughly:
population x energy_use x inefficiency . If we have overshot the carrying capacity of the earth, aided by a temporary fix of fossil fuels, then we will have to address each of the terms in the formula.

C2C and other worldchanging ideas address the energetic and ecological inefficiency. But if population and energy use are going to come down, we will need belief systems that support that effort. Perhaps religion and some heavy-duty environmentalism.

The future may look more like the world of 1925 or the 19th century, than it looks like the bright green vision of Viridianism.

Posted by: bart on 29 Jun 05

Thanks for the lively discussion, folks.

"But if population and energy use are to come down..."

One of Braungart's more provocative observations, imho, was his challenge to the "population problem," noting that Earth's ant population weighs in at about six times humanity's biomass. So maybe "population" isn't a problem after all, but the way the population lives, feed, excretes and interacts with Earth's living systems.

Or, to put it another way: how would we have to live, how would we have to organize modern society, for population _not_ to be a problem? Is that worth a few minutes consideration?

Posted by: Gil Friend on 29 Jun 05

Gil, it's not "population" that's a problem, it's exponentially-increasing population growth. Big difference. If you ask me to imagine a world which the latter wouldn't be a problem, I'm stumped. 1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,1024,2048... I don't think we'll solve that with innovative chemistry and consumer psychology. Which isn't to belittle your post - the work you describe is vital - but so is stabilizing population and economic throughput, the sooner the better.

PS - please say hello to Bill Reed for me.

Posted by: David Foley on 30 Jun 05



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