Waste Not, Want Not: The “Cradle to Cradle” Paradigm Gets Competitive
"Companies who embrace this into their strategies and key performance indicators will be the winners of tomorrow. The people who just talk a little bit and are defensive will be the losers." -- Desso chief executive Stef Kranendijk on the "cradle-to-cradle" business paradigm
2012 will mark a decade since German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect and designer William McDonough introduced the "cradle-to-cradle" (C2C) concept in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. In that book, which Publisher's Weekly called a "clarion call for a new kind of ecological consciousness," Braungart and McDonough laid out a biomimetic methodology to design in which designers and manufacturers apply "eco-effective” principles of nature and biology to their work, creating product life cycles that eliminate waste, maintain commerce and instead of damaging the environment, promote its well-being. To Braungart and McDonough, our lives are filled with products whose total impact on our health, the health of our pets and of course, the environment, are rarely fully known by consumers, even ones who are generally environmentally conscious.
NOT RECYCLING, BUT DOWNCYCLING
"You care about the environment," the authors write. "In fact, when you went shopping for a carpet recently, you deliberately chose one made from recycled polyester soda bottles. Recycled? Perhaps it would be accurate to say downcycled. Good intentions aside, your rug is made of things that were never designed with this further use in mind, and wrestling them into this form has required much energy -- and generated as much waste -- as producing a new carpet. And all that effort has only succeeded in postponing the usual fate of products by a life cycle or two. The rug is still on it way to a landfill; it's just stopping off in your house en route. Moreover, the recycling process may have introduced even more harmful additives that a conventional product contains, and it might be off-gassing and abrading them into your home at an even higher rate."
It seems that the carpet industry took the criticisms and tenets of the book seriously, because, as Jo Confino notes in a recent Guardian Professional Network article, there is a bit of a C2C battle going on between two carpet tile makers, InterfaceFLOR based in the United States and Desso based in the Netherlands, a situation that demonstrates that the drive be a C2C leader is not only fueled by consumer interest, but by intra-industry business competition.
THE SUSTAINABLE HOT POTATO: FROM INSPIRATION TO ACTION
Desso chief executive Stef Kranendijk had his epiphany after watching Braungart and McDonough's documentary, Waste = Food. "I started sweating and felt a panic in my head," he said. "I thought that this is fantastic. Such a logical, meaningful concept and I wanted to do this. The reason I started to panic is because I recognised this would mean we would have to change the whole way we work: R&D, manufacturing, the way we market and sell." InterfaceFLOR founder Ray Anderson had his awakening after reading Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, saying that he felt "the point of a spear driven straight into my heart."
Confino notes that Ray Anderson was "responsible for leading the way at InterfaceFlor, pioneering the goal of achieving zero impact through a change in the business paradigm." But Kranendijk says that today, Desso is "being seen as the number one carpet company going beyond sustainability."
THE UPHILL CRADLE-TO-CRADLE CLIMB
While these green industry leaders are changing the nature of the carpet business by eliminating toxins in the supply chain, there is still a long way to go. Desso plans to be completely cradle-to-cradle by 2020, which Confino says means "all the raw materials it uses will be free of toxic chemicals and designed for easy disassembly and able to be recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients." But changing the manufacturing process is one thing. Getting consumers to cough up 15 percent more for a more sustainable product is another.
According to a survey conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, many Americans and Canadians say they are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products. Half of the respondents said they would definitely or probably pay 15 percent more for eco-friendly clothes detergent or an automobile. Forty percent said that would spend 15 percent more on green computer printer paper or wood furniture.
But that report was released in July 2008, before the global financial crisis took hold. Consumers are now more concerned about protecting their pocketbooks than making sustainable decisions if those decisions cost more. Released last month, the Nielsen report "Sustainable Efforts & Environmental Concerns Around the World" found that only 12 percent of Americans and Canadians were willing to pay extra for eco-friendly goods. For Desso, InterfaceFLOR and any manufacturers, pursuing a cradle-to-cradle strategy is tough when consumers feel like their financial stability has been like a rug that has been pulled from under them.
image: compost trail laid by top dresser (credit: LAJ2006, Flickr Creative Commons)