Inside the Cradle to Cradle Institute

It's been about two and a half years since the launch of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the nonprofit chartered by architect and designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart to “bring about a large-scale transformation in the way we make the things we make.” And it’s been just over a decade since the publication of McDonough and Braungart’s book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the inspiration and knowledge base behind the institute.

Over that decade, the concept of “cradle to cradle”— that things could be designed and manufactured using materials and methods that would allow them to be returned to manufacturing cycles, or to the soil as something benign or even beneficial — has been talked about increasingly. Indeed, the term itself is now used widely — misused, in some cases — by companies and governments around the world.

Of course, cradle to cradle — C2C for short — is more than a concept. It’s a certification standard, “a continuous improvement quality standard to guide product manufacturers and designers in making safe and healthy things for our world,” in the words of the institute.

Over the past two years, the organization, and C2C itself, has moved forward in fits and starts, seeking traction in the marketplace. A handful of leading companies — including Alcoa, Armstrong, Aveda, Dow, Eastman Chemical, Herman Miller, Method, Natureworks, Owens Corning, PPG, Shaw Industries, Steelcase, and the U.S. Postal Service — have certified their products against the institute’s standard, but the list has grown slowly, and most of these companies have certified relatively few of their products. The institute certified fewer than 100 products in 2012.

However, as 2013 gets underway, the institute seems to be finding its footing — moving out of the cradle and into maturity, as it were. Among other things, the institute has just certified its first external assessor (other than the two originators of the standard, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and EPEA Internationale): Washington, D.C.-based consultancy ToxServices. The institute also launched Version 3.0 of the C2C standard and rolled out a training module for a new generation of scientists, guiding companies toward basic, silver, gold, or platinum certification of their products.

C2C may be poised at last to become a force in the world of product design and manufacturing.

Next page: Tip-toeing into it