It all began with a book called Cradle to Cradle that explained that we have to rethink how we make things, beginning with the products we produce. We have to forget the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” and embrace “eco-effectiveness”. Why: keep reading.
“If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist.”
For the German chemist Michael Braungart and the American architect William McDonough, authors of the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things, nothing should be produced if at the end of its life it becomes useless and potentially contaminating junk.
If, after reading these first lines, you think that Cradle to Cradle won’t interest the businesses of our globalized society, you wouldn’t offend the authors.
They created a consulting business that helps large companies worldwide to improve their methods of product development. Both McDonough and Braungart have been interviewed by Time and Newsweek, among other publications. And their book has been recommended in business schools.
The idea behind the products that follow the cradle-to-cradle ideology, according to the authors of this book and those who defend the axioms of this new trend for design and industrial production for the 21st century, is its ascendancy over the environmental slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle”.
As grandly stated in Wikipedia, it is “a manifesto calling for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design.”
Or as summarized by Daffyd Roderick in his review for Time Magazine in May of 2002, “rather than flog humans for being wasteful beasts, they celebrate our propensity to consume, insisting there are ways to make that impulse a healthy part of a dynamic ecosystem… Why can’t trainers be designed to eventually fertilize your tomatoes, or be reassembled into a new pair of shoes? The cynical response is that increased costs and our hardwired fashion instinct will prevent us wearing the same shoes too long, but the authors lead by example: Cradle to Cradle is printed with non-toxic ink on material made from waterproof resins. When you run out of shelf space, you can feed it to the flowers.”
Why don’t shampoo, yogurt or candy have biodegradable packaging?
Industrial stagnation caused, for example, the internal combustion engine of the car to continue being practically identical to that assembled by Ford in his first vehicle for the masses, the Model T– the first car with multi-millions sold, produced between 1908 and 1927.
This is one of the many examples of a reality gently explained in this book: eco-effectiveness, understood as the possibility to create goods increasingly more efficient, recyclable, lasting and less contaminating, hasn’t been taken into account until the 1990s.
If the world exists with designs that are destructive and not very intelligent, maybe the problem is based in the values of our society. Coming back to earth and keeping the discussion simple: the most environmentally-friendly products don’t require us to put band-aids on a contaminated world, but instead have been developed to achieve the maximum value as a consumption good and as an object capable of returning to the earth without negatively impacting it.
A factory could do much more for our society if, instead of buying rights to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere- as under the emissions trading scheme created by the EU to satisfy the mandates of the Kyoto Protocol-, it were to radically change its business culture and reduce the contaminating gasses that it emits.
In this same way, a house with little natural light and poor orientation that uses low-consuming light-bulbs needs more energy resources than a home designed to take advantage of the benefits of orientation, natural light, air currents and basic construction methods used in the towns of the Roman Empire.
If a building wastes a lot of energy on air conditioning and light, according to eco-effectiveness there is a better solution to accomplishing the goal of sustainability than optimizing equipment or installing solar panels.
The solution is none other than to conceive of the building from the beginning so that it doesn’t need to waste energy to achieve results that can be obtained through more environmentally effective design.
Eco-effectiveness is defined in Cradle to Cradle in the following way:
- Products should be designed to imitate trees, living things that have perfected the techniques of protection, cooling and regeneration over millions of years: in other words, producing more energy than they consume and purifying the water that they use.
- Factories should produce drinking water as a by-product.
- Once they have come to the end of their useful life, products shouldn’t become useless garbage, but should be returned to the earth so that they compost and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for the earth.
- The materials created most frequently by industry should be recuperated periodically for use by humans and nature.
- Transportation mediums can improve quality of life and, at the same time, distribute products and services.
The least bad isn’t good and garbage equals food
The Kyoto Protocol, ratified by all the rich countries minus the significant absentees in the official fight against climate change, the United States, and Australia, only aims to reduce the emissions of contaminating gasses to the atmosphere, whose particulates trap the sun’s heat and provoke global warming.
This pact between countries to reduce emissions is an example of good intentions and little real change. Kyoto attempts to reduce emissions, without fighting with all the economic resources and technologies within its reach to truly transform industry and stop it from contaminating.
According to Braungart and McDonough, reducing the impact of a product on the environment can reduce damage to the environment, but, it’s still an impact and, faster or slower, we are harming our earth in the end.
Environmental effectiveness targets the source of the problem: instead of reducing energy consumption, it is possible to use the maximum number of resources to create a product or service that avoids pollution, energy use and even is capable of contributing to the environment. To add instead of subtract.
The authors believe that, to achieve products in accordance with the philosophy “from the cradle to the cradle”, its axioms should be taken into account during all phases of development of a product: extraction, processing, use, reuse, recycling, etcetera.
McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC)
MBDC is a product and process design firm dedicated, according to the company’s self-definition, “to transforming the design of products, processes, and services worldwide.”
With its headquarters in Charlottesville (Virginia, USA), MBDC was founded to work with any business that asks for its help in employing strategies of product and process design based on eco-effectiveness, ideas developed in Cradle to Cradle.
The American company divides its activity into distinct areas: consulting on the design of products related to eco-effectiveness; education and training based on the ideas developed in its philosophy; and strategic consulting related to the environment for large firms.
Surprisingly, given the radicalness of the change proposed by eco-effectiveness, McDonough and Braungart don’t seem to have problems finding clients or large-scale projects. MBDC has worked, since its birth in 1995, in the integration of the regenerating ideas of Cradle to Cradle in projects of BASF, BP, S.C. Johnson, Nike, Ford Motor Company, Visteon, Volvo, Herman Miller, Victor Innovatex, Designtex, Rohner Textil, Pendleton y Miliken & Co.
MBDC has created a certification, C2C Certification, for those products that accomplish the criteria established by the consultancy’s “environmentally-intelligent” design concept.
The certification, displayed by accepted products through the C2C logo, tries to help “customers purchase and specify products that are pursuing a broader definition of quality.”
To obtain the C2C certification, products must:
- Use environmentally safe and healthy materials.
- Be designed for reuse of their component materials through recycling (reusing all the material to produce a new project) or composting (capable of returning to the earth and even to be used as fertilizer for plants).
- Achieve efficient water use and maximum water quality associated with its production.
- Institute strategies for social responsibility.
According to MBDC, “If a candidate product achieves the necessary criteria, it is certified as a Silver, Gold or Platinum product or as a Technical/Biological Nutrient (available for homogeneous materials or less complex products), and can be branded as Cradle to Cradle.”
Cradle to Cradle products
A complete list of the products that have achieved C2C certification is available at this link.
Among the products labeled Cradle to Cradle, one of the most talked about are the gDiapers. Catalogued under the classification Biological Nutrient: they are the first diapers designed to be completely reused or composted.
It may seem a product of minor importance, though perhaps your point of view will change after reading that a conventional diaper takes up to 500 years to decompose in a landfill. Or as clarified on the gDiapers website, “just in time for your great, great, great, great, grandchild’s birth.”
If this is the problem we have with something as basic as a diaper, one of the healthiest exercises we can adopt as consumers is to think about what happens to the products of our daily lives when they reach the end of their useful life.
For that reason many large companies seem ready to radically overhaul their design strategies using the ideas outlined by the eco-effectiveness philosophy. After all, eco-effectiveness can’t be labeled an outdated idea.