Cradle to Cradle: Manufacturing with Intelligent Design

Nov. 11, 2011
A carpet manufacturer uses the triple bottom line as a strategic design tool to move from eco-efficiency to true sustainability.

In the spring of 1912, one of the largest ships ever built left Southampton, England, and steamed westwards towards the United States. It was the epitome of its age: the height of luxury, technology, prosperity and progress. It was, of course, the Titanic, and it was destined to come up against the natural world in the shape of an iceberg.

The ship's demise forms the introduction of a highly influential book on sustainability: "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough. Published in 2002, it heralded a new philosophy whose central premise is that products should be conceived from the start with intelligent design and the intention that they will eventually be recycled, as either 'technical' or 'biological' nutrients.

The book's authors are simply making the point that, like Titanic, our industrial infrastructure remains "powered by artificial sources of energy that are environmentally depleting. It pours waste into the water and smoke into the sky." The iconic ship merely represents an industrial and unsustainable model of take, make and waste that is out of balance with the rest of the world around us.

Cradle to Cradle instead models human industry on the natural world, in which materials are nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It's a philosophy that uses nature as a template for how we can redesign everything that we do - including manufacturing industry - to be more eco-effective.

The modern environmental movement essentially dates from the 1992 Earth Summit at which 167 countries were represented, and which coined the phrase "eco-efficiency." This, so it was hoped, would transform industry from a system that takes, makes, and wastes into one that integrates economic, environmental and ethical concerns. Essentially, eco-efficiency means doing more with less.

For many companies, the eco-efficient approach has meant assessing manufacturing and distribution processes and then finding ways to minimize their impacts on the environment. It is, of course, an approach that is better than doing nothing. But, effectively, it's neither a coherent philosophy nor an environmental solution because it's about being "less bad" and believing it to be inherently ethical.

Carpeting & Eco-efficiency

The scale of the environmental challenge is particularly significant in the flooring industry. Statistics from the United States suggest that carpeting is replaced on average every seven years, despite usually having a guaranteed life of between 10 and 25 years. That means that a lot of perfectly good carpeting is thrown away every year, because it feels outdated.

According to a United Kingdom study carried out for the Contract Flooring Association, about 500,000 tons of carpet is thrown out in the UK every year. One estimate suggests that in the developed world some 2% of landfill waste is made up from old carpeting. Multiply those statistics across the world and you can sense the scale of those wasted resources, when much of that material could be used again.

It's an issue that is now of real concern across the carpet industry, with all the larger companies voluntarily addressing issues of sustainability. For some carpet manufacturers that has also meant reducing waste at source by using "natural" materials such as wool or sustainable plant fibers - most commonly, sisal, cotton, seagrass, jute or coconut coir. For others, it's been about using, for example, open-cell polyurethane foam in their carpet backing, a post-industrial waste from the automotive industry, an innovative way of reutilizing someone else's rubbish.

Eco-efficiency has been an enormous step forward in galvanizing companies to think and behave in new ways. It has brought significant environmental advances - often from companies thinking laterally, and working collaboratively. For example, in the flooring sector, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic beverage bottles are now being recycled in their millions to make polyester carpet fibers. Only this year, plastic bottles from Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, are now being sold to make carpet backing - in a mix of materials that also includes renewable soybean and celceram, a refined material recovered from coal-fired power stations.

But for Desso and a growing number of manufacturing companies, it's been about an alternative approach, going beyond eco-efficiency to adopt a new theory of eco-effectiveness, which looks at the manufacturing industry as regenerative rather than depletive, and designing goods that celebrate interdependence with other living systems. From an industrial design perspective it means making products that work within a circular rather than a linear economy.

Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle sounds deceptively simple, but it actually turns conventional sustainability on its head, because convention is all about a language of negatives. The green convention talks about "minimizing" human impacts, "zero footprints," "banning" harmful substances or "reducing" energy use.

Instead, Cradle to Cradle takes ethics out of the equation and paints an optimistic picture. It recognizes that bad and polluting products are not unethical; they are just poorly designed. Conversely, good and non-polluting products are not ethical; they are simply well designed.

In the living environment, materials are constantly being transformed without losing their capacity as nutrients; however, rotten apples are not recycled back into new apples: instead, they are transformed by chemical and other processes into nutrients for other organisms. In nature, nothing is wasted; everything is reused. As in nature, so can we do the same, using innovative supply chain management to use materials from one industry to support others, eliminating the concept of waste because all waste becomes tomorrow's raw materials or nutrients.

Braungart and McDonough state that when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems - for example, the effectiveness of nutrient recycling, or the abundance of the sun's energy - they can create products, industrial systems, buildings or even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist.

A Unified Philosophy

It is no less than a manifesto for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design; a positive agenda that says that, if we work with nature, the manufacturing sector can be truly good. Time magazine has called it "a unified philosophy that - in demonstrable and practical ways - is changing the design of the world."

By 2007, Desso had already adopted eco-efficient practices. Our energy consumption had declined by 30% over 10 years, we recycled 95% of industrial waste and we had been proactive in terms of reducing our water consumption, all of this within the context of steeply rising production.

In 2008, we entered into partnership with the Hamburg-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA -, the brainchild of Cradle to Cradle co-founder Michael Braungart. We have worked with EPEA to first identify the "material health" of each component in our products; assess how each component can be recovered and recycled in a process of "material reutilisation," assess energy and water usage and, lastly, examine our policies on social responsibility and fair labor practices. We intend that all our products will be designed and produced according to Cradle to Cradle design principles by 2020.

It's an approach that works commercially as well as environmentally. Our earnings (EBIT) have risen nine-fold between 2007 and 2010, and Desso's Cradle to Cradle journey is now the subject of a case study by the London Business School.

In implementing Cradle to Cradle we have, for example, this year introduced EcoBase - a carpet backing that can be entirely recycled back into carpet backing - becoming the first carpet manufacturer to have achieved a Cradle to Cradle Silver Certificate for an entire carpet tile product. Using carpet tiles with Desso's EcoBase can earn "Innovation in Design" points for projects seeking certification under the LEED Green Building Rating System.

We have also announced that 60% of our carpet tile range will be made from Econyl, a yarn made from 100% recycled content. Helping to make this happen, Desso has developed Refinity, a mechanical technique to separate yarn and other fibers from carpet backing so that both material streams can be recycled - with the carpet fibers being recycled as new yarn, and the EcoBase backing into new carpet backing.

We are also introducing Take Back programs to ensure that products can be recycled according to Cradle to Cradle principles. That will take time, and will be implemented first for carpet tiles with commercial customers, then with our sports system products, then our woollen carpets - for which we're also working on a bio-degradable base made out of corn by-product - and then we'll tackle the consumer market. We have also experimented in the biosphere, notably making yarn from bamboo.

Nature & Human Nature

Take Back in itself introduces a new concept, a concept alien to most manufacturing industries - the concept of a product of service. Instead of the current paradigm in which goods are bought, owned and disposed of, products containing valuable technical nutrients will be reconceived as new products that new consumers will wish to purchase.

In that manufacturing scenario, consumers are effectively buying the service of that product for a certain period and then, at the end of its useful life, the manufacturer takes it back, takes it apart and reuses its nutrients to make new products. Yes, we will still be in the business of selling products but, unlike now, we will retain responsibility for those products - to the end of their useful lives and beyond.

From a manufacturing perspective, that doesn't mean making products more durable or designed to last longer. It doesn't mean asking consumers to make do with their mobile phones or TV sets for longer, because consumption is bad. Cradle to Cradle makes planned obsolescence good; it makes consumption good. It merely asks us, the consumer, to buy new products from companies committed to the most sustainable closed loop manufacturing methodologies.

There are obvious benefits for all of us. First, it makes good business sense because, without waste, companies save money from having to source valuable new resources and, second, with nutrients being constantly recycled, it diminishes the need to extract any more new materials. That really does change the design of the world.

The challenge for manufacturing industry is to find that elusive balance between people, profit and the planet - the triple bottom line that is at the heart of the environmental agenda. But too often, using the eco-efficient model, we have ended up concentrating on profit, with social or ecological considerations coming second.

Cradle to Cradle allows us to use the triple bottom line as a strategic design tool and perhaps, as Braungart and McDonough suggest, turning that matrix on its head and considering corporate strategy as being about a triple top line - a new starting point from which to design products and processes.

It's nothing less than industrial re-evolution but, as Albert Einstein said, if we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place.

Andrew Sibley is a sales and marketing director for Desso, a leading European manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass.

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