“Decision makers now have to decide
on which level their company will be in ten or twenty years.”
Interviewee: Dr. Michael Braungart
CEO of EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung
The shift toward circular economy is rapidly evolving in the Europe, in the US, in China, everywhere around the world. But the concept itself isn’t something new. There is an organization that has promoted the basic concept since the 90’s: Cradle to Cradle®.
The five categories of the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard are material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. The Standard requires businesses to pursue “Total Quality” by including circularity in their product designs.
We asked Dr. Michael Braungart, the founder of Cradle to Cradle®, to tell more about the concept.
Q1: What is the mission of EPEA? What are your major achievements so far?
As an internationally active scientific research and consultancy institute, EPEA works with companies, governments, and institutions and supports them in the introduction of circular processes. The foundation of our scientific work is the Cradle to Cradle® design concept, which was developed in the 1990s. It stands for innovation, quality, and good design, and describes the safe and potentially infinite cyclical use of materials. In the biological cycle, materials are returned to the biosphere in the form of compost or other nutrients, from which new materials can be created. In the technical cycle, materials that are not completely consumed during usage can be reprocessed to allow them to be used in a new product.
Cradle to Cradle® is about eco-effectiveness and goes beyond conventional sustainability tools and approaches, which primarily show the negative influence of humans on the environment. Cradle to Cradle® follows the Triple Top Line as its basic approach, and its implementation creates equal economic, social and ecological benefits. We think, “let’s be good instead of just less bad.”
Over the past 25 years the Cradle to Cradle® design framework has evolved from a vision to an applied concept that is taught in design schools, is listed in public procurement guidelines, and is recognized in various international standards. There are already more than 8,000 certified Cradle to Cradle® products from a wide variety of sectors. For example, in the textile sector we have developed the first compostable T-shirt that is actually made for skin contact. An innovative product example for the technical material cycle is a special carpet that is not only non-toxic, but also actively cleans the air of fine dust. In the Netherlands a City Hall has been built according to the Cradle to Cradle® principles. The achievements in these sectors are just a few examples which show that positive development is on the way. Currently, we have the same drive in the paper and printing sector, and in packaging and various consumer goods.
Q2: What does “Total Quality” means in the context of Cradle to Cradle®?
People understand that it’s not just about being eco or green, it’s about quality. In this way, we can understand the past 40 years of discussion about “the end of the world” ― environmental devastation and resource depletion ― as an opportunity for innovation to start redesigning our products. If, for example, a washing machine manufacturer would sell the service “2,000 times washing” instead of selling the whole product respectively, much better materials can be used and later reused by the manufacturer. In the long term this will result in cheaper products because intelligence is put into product design rather than downstream and dubious recycling methods.
In this sense, Cradle to Cradle® is an economic and innovation concept. It has nothing to do with “sustainability”, which is basically backward debt management that makes people feel guilty. True innovation is never sustainable, because otherwise it would not be innovative. A product that causes waste simply has a quality problem. Applying Cradle to Cradle® will result in much better products that are so superior in quality that they do not compete with products from low-wage countries.
The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard is in this regard an approval for the achieved quality, and additionally a helpful guideline that shows producers which aspects need to be considered during the design, production, and recycling processes. This includes the five criteria mentioned above.
Q3: What are the advantages for companies who introduce Cradle to Cradle® into their business model?
Cradle to Cradle® enables companies to offer their products not just for sale, but as a service. After product usage, the materials are taken back as part of a reprocessing system and therefore remain in the bio- or technosphere. In this way, companies may become less dependent on price fluctuations in raw materials markets. Furthermore, all processes along the supply chain, from raw materials to the remanufacturing, can be monitored and improved. In a digital world each component is accurately captured: how it is deployed and where it can be deployed without any quality issues, because the next use scenario is already considered. A true digitization won’t be possible without Cradle to Cradle®.
The main advantage for businesses is the achievement of better quality through proper innovation at an early stage. When purchasing healthy input materials and recycling materials, companies can work together to create material pooling. The larger the network of companies that produce Cradle to Cradle®, the more effective the targeted material cycle will be. Decision makers now have to decide on which level their company will be in ten or twenty years.
Finally, a positive company objective will motivate creative talents, who increasingly want to be proud of their work. In Europe, there are hundreds of active people, including numerous young designers, who want to redesign products and thus play a key role in production. From this perspective, I expect that by 2035-2040 our entire industrial society will more or less apply Cradle to Cradle®. So, in my opinion, we are quite good on schedule.