Before it can be circular, it has to be safe

Bill McDonough
Time Into Pixels Photography
Bill McDonough is an architect, designer, author and lecturer on the circular economy.

Could this be a tipping point for the supply chain transparency movement? As more organizations consider how to recirculate the products they make — or procure on behalf of their own internal consumption — the need to know what’s in them is becoming more acute.

"One thing we know is we need to know a lot more about our materials. Where are they? What’s in them? What could we do with them?" said Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer for Google, discussing her company’s new goal to maximize its reuse the "stuff" that’s integral to the technology giant’s revenue.

For Google that includes — but is not limited to — the powerful computer services and networking gear that keep its data centers humming and the components that are used in its electronics gear.  

She continued during her presentation at Circularity 19: "I propose a question: What if we saw ‘stuff’ as information? What if we looked at all of these materials spanning around the globe, moving around, as billions and trillions of bits of data. This is an inspiring question to us at Google." 

One fundamental concern with any object being considered for reuse, of course, is whether it’s safe to keep it around. Becoming more efficient by keeping "bad" products in circulation could be an unintended consequence of the circular movement, observed renowned architect, designer and author Bill McDonough.

His concern is the potential for "retox," McDonough cautioned during his presentation at Circularity 19, returning to the theme that grounds the book he co-authored in 2002, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things." Before a circular model can be built around a specific product or thing, gaining a thorough understanding of its makeup is critical, he said. "Can it be put back in the soil safely? Can it be put on my skin safely?"

The Cradle to Cradle certification program borne out of that philosophy is today run and administrated by a separate institute, but McDonough’s firm MBDC is involved with guiding manufacturers and designers that are seeking to make their products healthier, more sustainable and more circular. It advises them on working toward the certification (as do other firms).

In early June, MBDC announced a collaboration with software company Toxnot that it hopes will speed the process of gathering information for cradle-to-cradle visibility. The idea is pretty simple: As a result of the partnership, companies that use the Toxnot software to manage information about the ingredients in their products will be able to submit that information as part of their Cradle to Cradle certifications far more easily. On the flip side, they’ll have access to more data about safer or less hazardous alternatives.

"Disclosure of ingredients for products and materials does not always equate to reduced harm for human and environmental health," said MBDC president Jay Bolus in the press release about the partnership. "Our collaboration with Toxnot will provide manufacturers a trusted way to communicate their work toward safer and hazardous materials because the ingredients will have been fully assessed for Cradle to Cradle certification — while keeping their proprietary formulas secured."

The upside is improved efficiency, Bolus told GreenBiz. Because the Cradle to Cradle certification requires a serious deep dive, it requires a lot of information, which can be a real challenge for well-meaning companies with limited resources. It also could be helpful to smaller suppliers that are being asked to provide their information to multiple customers; the theory is that they will be able to share and update the date in one place.

The specifics of how the collaboration will work are still being worked out. Right now, fee structures are still separate: a manufacturer or materials provider would still be responsible for the Toxnot software subscription as well as a Cradle to Cradle screening fee. The latter, however, should be discounted because assessments should be completed more quickly, Bolus said.

The Cradle to Cradle certification currently covers tens of thousands of products ranging from materials for the built environment to consumer-facing goods and cosmetics. Its membership includes several hundred multinational manufacturers. About half of the products that are certified are sold outside of North America.

Toxnot, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, is specifically focused on helping manufacturers streamline the transparency process chemicals in their products. It has "thousands" of customers including plumbing fixtures maker Kohler, flooring company Shaw, electrical infrastructure manufacturer Legrand and Google.