How Cradle-to-Cradle Became a Foundation for Method's Design

Cradle to Cradle

How Cradle-to-Cradle Became a Foundation for Method's Design

Method recently had an exceedingly rare joint visit from Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough, the co-authors of Cradle-to-Cradle and principals of MBDC. In the green design world, this is like spending the afternoon working on a script with Pacino and DeNiro, like jamming with Jagger and Richards, like fighting evil with Batman and Robin...

Michael and Bill are in San Francisco to work on the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute and to explore ways for C2C thinking to be formalized in the State of California's Green Chemistry Initiatives.

We took advantage of their time here by having them in to chat with our team. We spoke about what's inspiring them, what their favorite examples of applied C2C thinking are, what they'd love to see method do next, and how to keep this evolving domain of thought central to method's thinking.

Here's a little background on how method has integrated C2C into our ethos and product development process.

In 2006, one of our founders read Cradle-to-Cradle and had multiple, successive and powerful epiphanies:

  • "Wait, method should focus on being good for the environment, not just less bad."
  • "My god, chemistry is the key to great design. And design is the key to great chemistry!"
  • And "Whoa -- Cradle-to-Cradle is how we make environmental design about value creation rather than risk mitigation."

Shortly after, Method started working with EPEA, the Hamburg-based environmental research institute that Michael had founded, and MDBC, its U.S.-based sister firm. Both firms are staffed by chemists, material scientists, designers and biologists who complete the materials assessment research required for C2C design. In short, their research gives the necessary information and guidance for clients to safely design the next life into their products.

Since 2006, EPEA has been method's materials research partner. They assess all prospective formulation ingredients -- such as solvents, colorants, chelators and surfactants -- against a comprehensive list of toxicological and environmental criteria. These criteria span from health endpoints like skin and eye irritation, to acute toxicity and chronic effects like carcinogenicity and developmental toxicity, and environmental factors like biodegradation and aquatic toxicity.

Method's formulation chemists and EPEA's team work with our suppliers to gather the above data and request further materials testing when required. EPEA then scores all ingredients on a green-yellow-red-grey spectrum, with grey scoring as unknown (and treated as red unless proven otherwise).

This materials assessment process allows us to make fully informed formulation decisions and to be sure that the formulas we use are safe for people and the environment. By working with a positively defined safe materials pallet, our formulators can focus on the real task of building high performance cleaners. Summaries of the material assessments are also included on the ingredient transparency section of methodhome.com, so our consumers can use them to fully understand what's in our products.

So, back to our rockstar design-chemist visit.

Michael and Bill are great at framing product chemistry as a design problem. They gave the compelling example of human breast milk contamination, which has such high concentrations of pollutants that it would not be legal for sale as a food product. Of course, no manufacturer would deliberately produce chemicals that have this effect or formulate products with these consequences, yet clearly it happens. Focusing on all of the outcomes an activity creates and asking whether these are really desirable is central to a designer's responsibility.

Michael showed a video of what he called the world's largest packaging designs -- Maersk's recyclable super tanker ships. Each ship carries a C2C passport detailing full material composition for highly effective materials recovery after their useful life -- definitely an interesting frame.

They also spoke about the importance of learning from natural systems design, particularly in their cyclical nature and how all waste from one process can be good for another. They called out the important distinction between learning from natural systems and simply romanticizing nature.

Michael showed a bar of soap from his hotel that was described as 98.4 percent natural -- and yet contained EDTA, a synthetic, non-biodegradable chelator. He pointed out the irony of being so obsessed with communicating, perhaps misleadingly, the natural aspects of a product and still including substances that have no place in any natural system.

Bill also spoke about an inspiring packaging design example, of the rice paper candy wrappers used in China. The brilliance of these wrappers is that they can be eaten along with the candy or can be used as packaging and then thrown on the ground, where the next rainfall will dissolve them. We love the model, though we're not sure how to make our packaging follow this model. Yet.

Whether it's for product concept inspiration or the basic focus on fully informed material science research, Cradle-to-Cradle is the core thesis of method's green product vision. This book should be required reading for anyone seeking to link green product design with innovation and value creation.