Less bad, more good – pioneering a circular economy with Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design is an eye-opening approach to eliminating waste and creating a circular economy. Developed by William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart, the main focus of the initiative is to design products that are 100% beneficial to people and the environment – that really improve quality of life, rather than merely doing less harm.

Many companies have already stepped forward, demonstrating that for-profit entities can successfully implement the concept. URBAN HUB speaks with Bridgett Luther, co-founder and former president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, about how product design can help make the world a better place.

Ensuring the future is green – Environmental sustainable development draws on concepts of little waste, lower consumption and switching to green, environmentally-sustainable resources like solar and wind or materials which can constantly be up-cycled.

Published on 03.12.2015

Steering away from the grave

Most of the products we use today follow a cradle-to-grave mentality of “use it, lose it and bury it in the ground.” Cradle to Cradle, however, implies that the end of a product’s use cycle will be followed by the beginning of another – ad infinitum.
C2C starts in the design phase: Designers must consider how every piece of a product can retain value at the end of its current use cycle. But that’s not all: It should also make some kind of positive impact. Whereas traditional products are designed to do less damage (but not fully avoid it), the C2C mentality asks “How can this product do good?”
Real innovations that follow the C2C approach include buildings with roofs that can be used for farming, carpets that filter particles from the air and wall plaster that absorbs airborne toxins. Why not a 100% recycled blanket where all net proceeds go to charity? Yes. These products really exist.

Bridgett Luther
“Cradle to Cradle is all about design – designing in a way where everything we do has a positive impact. Imagine if all the things you see were good for people and planet, and that every time a company made these products, they were creating good.”

Bridgett Luther

Co-founder and former president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

Did you know...?

Most recycling is actually “downcycling”. Every time materials are recycled, they are mixed with lesser quality metals or plastics, resulting in a lower quality material. This continues until you just have trash. Manufacturers need to design products with the goal of making sure that, at the end of the current cycle-of-use, 100% of product components can either be safely returned to the earth, or returned to industry as valuable raw materials.

C2C and its positively growing footprint

In 2002, American architect William McDonough and German Chemist Michael Braungart got the ball rolling with their seminal book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”. Since then, the two authors have become renowned lecturers and have both founded consultancies that advise companies on C2C design. In 2010, they founded the non-profit “Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute” together with Bridgett Luther.

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute gives companies the chance to show their C2C performance. Ex-president Bridgett Luther explains: “The institute trains consulting firms who help companies through the certification process. So in addition to Bill (McDonough) & Michael (Braungart)’s firms, you can also work with Tebodin, EPEA Switzerland, Eco-Age and several others.”

These firms help companies go through the C2C program. When they are done, they send a report to the Institute, it’s audited and, if they pass, they get the C2C mark and are added to the product registry.

C2C Products Innovation Institute Certifications

Growth can be good

Manufacturers need to move beyond reducing their carbon footprint and merely using resources efficiently. Why? Because if they don’t focus on increasing their positive impact, they will always remain net negative.

“Eco-efficiency” (less bad) needs to be complimented by “eco-effectiveness” (more good). After all, what good is a relationship that’s merely “sustainable”?

C2C can be considered more of a quality mark than a traditional certification. Luther explains: “Often, when companies start thinking along the lines of a Cradle-to-Cradle approach, they do so in many areas. They consider how their products, processes and systems can do good, rather than simply reducing the bad.”

“More good” in layman’s terms

If you focus on reducing fossil fuel consumption, you’ll never make a positive difference. If, on the other hand, you find a way to use 100% renewable energies like wind and solar power, you can leave your lights on as much as you want and you’d still be making a positive contribution to society.

Cradle-to-Cradle circular economy upcycling process
  • 1) Products are designed for end-of-use disassembly & recovery

    The things we buy should be designed to be easily broken down into their component parts. Some parts may be safely biodegradable and returned to earth, and 100% of the remaining parts will return to industry for reuse in new products.

  • 2) Use of renewable energies

    Products produced and operated on 100% renewable energy do not have to worry about consumption: the power’s always clean.

  • 3) Maintaining and enhancing water quality

    Water is a basic human right and, whenever we use it, we’re only borrowing it from the earth. Industry must respect people’s right to have clean water and uphold a healthy relationship with the environment. Water must be returned just as clean as, or cleaner than, when it was borrowed.

  • 4) Honoring social fairness and human dignity

    Manufacturing, construction and all kinds of operations must be designed to honor all people and natural systems affected by the creation, use, disposal or reuse of a product.

  • 5) Continuous and aspirational improvement

    Although certification through the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is an excellent and honorable move, companies should develop a C2C mentality that is pursued in all endeavors, so an organization’s positive footprint can spread in unexpected directions.

  • 6) Materials must be safe to use and reuse

    Materials are defined as biological or technical nutrients. Technical nutrients are materials that cannot be broken down in the natural environment, but are nonetheless essential to industry. They are kept within a closed cycle, separate from biological nutrients that can be safely returned to the earth.

C2C trendsetters

When companies opt for C2C certification, they can expect a very demanding, yet rewarding process. thyssenkrupp Elevator Americas is one of the few companies to receive a Material Health Certificate from the Institute.

Luther applauds the company: “They got their hydraulic oil certified – that’s really going the extra mile. This certification doesn’t get them a point for LEED. They just did it because they thought it would really tell their story in a way that nothing else would. And I’m actually amazed that they took it on, because it wasn’t easy.”

thyssenkrupp C2C material health certification

Many trendsetters are making a contribution with their products. Highland Craftsmen, for example, sell wall siding made of reclaimed tree bark. Method makes C2C gold-certified body wash and household cleaning products, while Aveda boasts a full range of gold-certified personal hygiene products.

“What thyssenkrupp Elevator has done is pretty incredible. They want to let the world know that they’re really invested in a better world. And this little mark is a way to show your sustainability profile in a one-inch square.”

Bridgett Luther

Co-founder and former president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

The solution to our current environmental problems

C2C points the way to finally diverging from the “take-make-waste” path that is causing our planet to suffer. Instead of patching the system with down-cycling and so-called “sustainable” solutions, we need a zero-waste approach with C2C design and a truly circular economy.

Companies – particularly product designers, manufacturers and architects – are called to stand up and design goods that, when no longer useful, can safely return their “nutrients” to industry and mother earth.

If you plan it – if you design it – it can be done. Would you like to contribute to creating a circular economy? Check out the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute to see what they’re doing, and read William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart’s book – you won’t regret it.

See how the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute explains the near future of production design.
“You can have a sustainability report on your website, but when you go to see a customer and you tell them you have a Cradle to Cradle product, you can see their face kind of light up because they recognize you’ve done some hard work.”

Bridgett Luther

President Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

Short bio Bridgett Luther

Co-founder and former president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, Bridgett Luther has a long history of involvement in environmental protection and resource conservation. She spent five years as Director of the California Department of Conservation with responsibility for a wide variety of programs, including the California beverage container recycling program.