Cradle to Cradle product certification enters new era

The venerable and rigorous Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified program entered a new era January 1, with a major revision that encourages continuous improvement.

That's not the only major change: The program also added the first third-party assesser, other than ones affiliated with the originators of the standard -- McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and EPEA Internationale.

That company, Washington, D.C.-based consultancy ToxServices, has already signed two contracts for C2C Certified assessment services and a third is waiting in the wings, said founder and chief toxicologist Meg Whittaker. "No one is too good to get on a continuous improvement plan," she said.

There are five categories under the C2C certification: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship and Social Responsibility. There are five tiers of participation, ranging from Basic to the highest achievable level, Platinum.

While the concept of cradle-to-cradle sustainability assessments is fairly well understood, only 150 companies have invested in the full-fledged certification during its eight-year existence -- in part because they could be performed only by MBDC and EPEA Internationale. Two of the biggest proponents of the C2C framework are green cleaning products company Method and office furniture maker Herman Miller.

ToxServices, a 25-person firm in business about 10 years, was caught off-guard by its invitation to participate but barely hesitated to get on board because it overlapped well with its existing services. "We are small, but work for almost every company out there," Whittaker said. While she can't name customers, the ToxServices roster includes major cosmetics and computer companies. Approximately 30 percent of its clients come from the public sector.

The ToxServices staff was trained extensively in the draft version of the standard during the summer of 2012, revising its own internal processes to conform more closely with the C2C assessment requirements along the way and adding an environmental engineer this month.

"We are very aware of the shoes we are stepping into," she said.   

Next page: New era for the C2C certification

The move to add more assessment bodies is critical for convincing more companies to integrate sustainability principles into their standard design practices, said Adam Lowry, co-founder and "chief greenskeeper" for Method, which has achieved C2C Certified recognition for more than 60 products.

"This is really important from two angles," Lowry said. "You need more assessors for this to scale. C2C has already been the toughest certification to achieve. But moving it to a public body makes it even more authentic. It adds a whole extra level of transparency."

One top priority this year for the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which now governs the standard, is training additional assessors in both North America and Europe.

That's necessary for helping more companies – particularly small ones – get on board with the C2C Certified principles because it will help make it easier to invest in audits, Whittaker said.

The cost of that investment varies dramatically -- from $5,000 to $80,000 --depending both on the type of product and the complexity of its make-up, as well as whether or not sustainability was considered at the beginning of the design process, she said.

For example, it might cost about $5,000 to perform the assessment for a simple cleaning product or biodegradable baby diapers. Something like food containers might range from $10,000 to $15,000.

What does that investment earn your company aside from the knowledge that it is doing right by the planet? A C2C certification can be used to earn points under the LEED green building program, among other things. Perhaps even more important, it is an eligibility requirement under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program.

Don't expect to earn a certification overnight. It could take weeks to gather the formulations for each individual component considered in an audit, and assessments will take at least two months depending on the complexity of the product, according to Whittaker.

And, you'll have to do it all over again in the future. Version 3.0 of the certification requires companies to undergo an assessment every two years, forcing companies to keep raising the bar on their green business practices.

"This is one of the most powerful things about the program," Lowry said. "You are accountable for making improvements."