The Cradle to Cradle Mindset

The Cradle to Cradle Mindset

[Editor's Note: This is an updated version that corrects the number of Cradle to Cradle-certified products offered by Steelcase.]

Sustainable product design has moved well past the advent of corn-based candy wrappers and toothbrushes made from recycled yogurt cups. Today's manufacturers are embracing Cradle to Cradle design (C2C), an environmentally intelligent sustainable design methodology that has been applied to everything from polyester cloth to foam core insulation and ergonomic office chairs to mailing envelopes.

"Cradle to cradle is about the merging of design and chemistry," says Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations for McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a private consulting and C2C certification firm in Charlottesville, Va.

William McDonough, the company's co-founder and principal, coined the phrase 'cradle to cradle' and launched the international design trend with the 2002 publication of his book, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things."

"The idea behind cradle to cradle is to design better products by putting filters in your head instead of at the end of a pipe," Bolus says. "Products should have no end-of-life. Rather they should be designed with an end-of-use in mind."

Cradle to cradle certification includes 19 human and environmental health criteria to ensure materials are not harmful to the environment or people, and can either be recycled, remanufactured or composted. The result is products that are environmentally sustainable today and 100 years from now. About 150 products from some 50 companies have been certified but since several are product families, the actual number is much higher, Bolus said.

Bolus is quick to point out that this does not mean all C2C products must be natural or biodegradable. While many of the products MBDC certifies are made from natural substances, he urges companies to think more broadly about C2C requirements.

"There is a bio bias. People think C2C has to be natural," he says. "But the math shows that you can't possibly make everything from natural material. We couldn't sustain it."

Instead, companies need to look at the engineering and chemistry of a product, choose materials that are not harmful to the environment and build products in ways that make them easy to disassemble and re-use. A C2C-certified side chair, for example, might be made from steel or aluminum -- which is 100 percent recyclable -- with a recyclable plastic seat attached with simple screws or a snap fit design that can be easily taken apart.

You Can Do It

It may sound like a daunting task to re-engineer existing products -- or to create a new approach to material selection and design for new products -- but it's worth the effort, says Rich Guinn, vice president of business development for Pittsburgh-based Centria, a manufacturer of metal building products and systems. "You'll learn more about how you make products and what goes into them then you ever knew before, and you will become a better company for the experience," he says.

Centria launched its first C2C design project four years ago, converting its most complex product -- the Dimension Series architectural cladding, which features painted metal and a foam core -- to a C2C-certified product. The company now has nine C2C-certified product families.

"We figured if we started with the most complex product and got that under our belt, we'd learn more, and we could derive other decisions for future products from the experience," says Guinn.

He was right. Centria spent 18 months working with MBDC to conform the cladding design to C2C standards while still maintaining the original product's quality and durability. It included working closely with suppliers, chemists and engineers to choose coatings and insulation materials that would not release harmful toxins when used or recycled, and would prevent moisture problems that can lead to mold in buildings.

"Doing this was a leap of faith," he says. "But we saw C2C as the gold standard and we wanted to make it work." Since certifying the first product, Guinn notes that the process has become much easier. The company has established relationships with suppliers who now understand C2C requirements, and it has a list of materials that have already been vetted through the original certification process.

"It was a challenge, but now we benefit from having C2C embedded in our processes," Guinn says.

Like Centria, Herman Miller, the global furniture manufacturer, got hooked on the concept of C2C design several years ago. It began its first pilot C2C certification project in 1997 and spent two years examining ways of embedding C2C into a large organization. Today the company incorporates C2C into every new product design process.

To support the C2C strategy, Herman Miller employs a team of environmental experts to oversee all new product projects from a sustainable design standpoint. It is aggressively pursuing a goal to certify all products to C2C standards as part of its 2020 zero waste sustainability goal.

"The impetus goes back to our founder who was passionate that sustainability be an integral part of the corporation," says Gabe Wing, design for the environment manager in Zeeland, Mich.

Wing is one of the environmental experts who works with project teams to set C2C goals for new products. Herman Miller project teams set milestones at various points in the development process to assess materials and design specifically for certification requirements.

Baby Steps

Pursuing Cradle to Cradle certification is not for the faint of heart. It’s a time-intensive process that requires dedication throughout a company to succeed. Experts who have been through the process with several products offer advice on how to get started.

1. Do your homework. Rich Guinn of Centria urges companies to meet with C2C consultants to develop a strategy for converting existing products or developing new ones as a first step to figure out how to get started and whether you have the commitment to succeed.

2. Know what you want to do. “You need to understand the difference between what the company aspires to and what it will invest in,” says Angela Nahikian of Steelcase. The best way to do that, she says, is by starting with one or two small certification projects that will test the leadership’s willingness to dedicate time, resources and money to the project. “That’s how you learn what your biggest challenges are, and whether your company has the ability to follow through,” she says.

3. Start at the top. The message of sustainability and commitment to Cradle to Cradle has to come through top decision makers who should sponsor the certification projects, Guinn says. “Our president is our biggest fan. He internalizes C2C and has made it an obligation of the organization.”

4. Start early. The sooner you think about sustainability and embed those decision-making processes into product design methods, the easier it is to find solutions, says MBDC’s Jay Bolus.

5. Don’t be scared. It may seem overwhelming at first, but if you start small you can ease into it,” Bolus adds. “You’ll soon realize that a lot of it is just common sense and changing the way you look at design -- for a cradle-to-cradle and not cradle-to-grave mentality.”

"We don't want to be the green police, although we have been," he admits. "More importantly, we are there to champion the right environmental decisions."

Wing says the biggest challenges involve really understanding the chemistry of the materials and making sure everyone in the supply chain is on board. "Making suppliers understand what C2C is and what's acceptable is a continuous process," he says.

And it doesn't stop with the first tier relationship, warns Angela Nahikian, director of global environmental sustainability for Steelcase, the global office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich. Steelcase has assessed the chemistry of more than 400 categories of materials, resulting in C2C certification of 27 products.

"Sometimes it means you have to go six layers deep to get to the point at which the material was extracted," she says. "It takes a significant commitment on the part of suppliers and from the internal sourcing group to oversee those relationships. This is not work for lightweights."

There are strategies, however, to make it easier. Bolus urges companies with multi-tiered supply chains to establish a legal chain of responsibility through which each supplier is required to manage the C2C expectations for themselves and for the supplier beneath them. "That way the responsibility cascades down," he says.

"This is not a painless process. It requires a lot of time, cooperation and commitment, and you have to take risks," Guinn adds. "But you will be a better company for having done it."

Nahikian agrees. "It's given us brand credibility and it differentiates us from the competition," she says.

And more than that, the C2C design process had a profound impact on Steelcase employees. "It causes us to hold ourselves accountable for what we do, and it's created a very emotional, meaningful connection to our work," she says. "There is a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling that we have done something good for the world and for our kids."

And that, she says, is worth the effort.