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Lessons from the frontlines of the next industrial revolution

Cradle to Cradle design can answer anything from CO2 pollution to poor treatment of workers. One of its leaders looks ahead as she shifts course.

For the past five years I’ve been growing a certification program based on Cradle to Cradle design and thinking. Today, I’m letting friends and colleagues know that I’m leaving my position as president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, an organization I helped found. While this is nothing more than my choice to go in a new direction, I want to share some of what I’ve learned along the way.

Intentionality — the power of yes — is game changing

Over the last five years I’ve watched so many companies commit to a positive impact on the world and then do it. They send our organization their “report card” so they can be transparent about their journey — not only to themselves, but also the world — and the result is market leadership through continuing relevance and innovation. Companies can spend months thinking about their mission and goals, but there’s little complexity and huge rewards to the commitment, “Let’s make the world better,” that’s embodied in the Cradle to Cradle philosophy.

There’ll have to be a big investment in 'takeback' infrastructure

California has invested millions in its beverage container program and the result is billions of containers out of the waste stream and back into other products. And they’ve invested in incentivizing not only consumers but also communities with grants, low interest loans to waste managers and money to companies who actually take materials for recycling. 

Until we see countries and other states deciding to make those types of investments, circularity hasn’t much of a chance. As companies move through the certification standard, they actually start to design for and implement end-of-use strategies, but having big infrastructure investors would help speed up the process.

New materials are a big opportunity

The move towards transparency about “what’s in my product” is a killer opportunity for chemical companies to get ahead of the curve. Instead of spending money on lobbying against regulations they could be investing back into their innovation portfolios, perhaps even, as the father of green chemistry, John Warner, famously has noted, beginning to train staff in toxicology and ecology, empowering them to understand the environmental impact of their work. The companies that do that now will have a big leg up over their competitors in the future. 

We need to support industry disruptors

Whether it is Tesla cars or Method cleaning products, these companies were way out front and deserve our purchases. Find them and help them on their paths of continual improvement, and then we will really start to change the way things are made.

We need to model change

Talking about living or doing with less to other countries and their companies just won’t work. What we should be doing is creating good models that emerging economies can follow. (A simple one to follow? The Cradle to Cradle continuous improvement standard.)

We buy too much stuff

The fact that the storage industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in this country is damning. At the same time, we need to keep what we do buy in circulation, whether it is last year’s cell phone or last season’s T-shirt. Everything should have a place to go next. 

Cradle to Cradle design is a good answer for just about all the big problems we see in the world. Too many toxins? Cradle to Cradle. Valuable materials going to landfills? Cradle to Cradle. Polluted water? Cradle to Cradle. Too much carbon in the atmosphere? Cradle to Cradle. Better treatment of workers? Cradle to Cradle.

I will continue to push the goals of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Thanks to William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the foundation is strong. They did what they set out to do: give the certification program to the public through our nonprofit, and train other consultants around the world to help companies implement the program. The Institute’s team is absolutely committed to scaling the program worldwide. 

I applaud the more than 200 companies that have gotten on this path. I encourage others to join them. Here’s my intention: “Make the world better.”

What’s yours?

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