Desso cradles a new way of thinking

Leading carpet tile manufacturer Desso aims to have 100% of its business cradle-to-cradle by 2020 - an ambition which is sparking diversity and innovation along the way, as Maxine Perella finds out

In modern manufacturing, waste is never far away. It is an industry dominated by cradle-to-grave design philosophies with many products containing on average a mere 5% of the raw materials involved in their production and delivery.

It takes real guts to go against the grain and capture more of that raw material, to keep it flowing in the industrial eco-system. For any one company, embracing a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach is akin to taking a momentous business risk. It involves hefty investment, new ways of working and a fundamental shift in mindset – not just throughout the business itself, but its entire value chain.

Such disruptive innovation requires powerful leadership and Desso has that in its chairman Stef Kranendijk, who set the company on this path in 2008 when he took over the reins as CEO five years ago. He recently stepped down as CEO, but his C2C ambitions for the company remain fierce. Desso has a target for all of its products to be 100% C2C certified by 2020 – a portfolio that covers carpet tiles, carpets and artificial grass pitches.

One of Kranendijk’s first moves when he came to Desso was to appoint a sustainability director and design a roadmap that would help translate the theory of C2C into practice. As carpet tiles account for the lion’s share of the company’s business, this product line was targeted first – the material composition of every tile was studied and assessed for toxicity levels that go beyond REACH chemical regulations.

As Kranendijk explains, this is one of the cornerstones of C2C thinking: not just complying with laws and using less of bad chemicals, but choosing chemicals and materials that can have positive impacts.

“We want to source very pure materials that you can endlessly recycle again and again. It goes beyond being eco-efficient as having zero emissions just means being less bad. Cradle-to-cradle is more about being eco-effective and having a positive footprint so you give back to nature,” he says.

In practice, this means finding alternative, non-toxic alternatives for materials like the bitumen backing of carpet tiles. Here Desso teamed up with Dow Chemicals to develop a new type of polyolefin based carpet tile backing, called EcoBase, which can be eventually upcycled into new backing – it currently commands a premium price tag, but in time the cost should fall in line with standard bitumen-based tiles.

Meanwhile bitumen-backed tiles can be taken back by the company and recycled within its own Refinity process, which removes the backing from the yarn so it can be reprocessed and incorporated into new carpet. Any waste bitumen is sold on as a secondary product, often for road building or to the cement industry.

Over 90% of Desso’s carpet tiles are now C2C certified, and the company is working hard to get the rest of its product lines – woollen carpets and artificial grass pitches which account for around a third of its business – up to similar standards, but Kranendijk readily admits that due to the nature of remaking how things are made, the journey is not a smooth one.

“If you look at the progress we have made since 2008, we should be much further on with our other businesses, but embedding cradle-to-cradle is a very staggered process – much like one step forward, two steps back. We have to work with an enormous number of suppliers, and suppliers of these suppliers … it can take a long time,” he acknowledges.

That said, Desso is seen as an innovation platform, both among its peers and within its own value chain, and having such a clear strategy greatly assists with stakeholder confidence. Suppliers for instance, are educated in the whole C2C philosophy and told what type of materials or chemicals to source.

As Desso looks to build yet further functionality into its products, the inventiveness that this approach offers is clear to see. The manufacturer now offers carpet tiles that claim to improve air quality over hardwood floors by trapping fine dust particles that contribute towards respiratory diseases such as asthma. It also offers tiles that come with high light reflection values, enabling lower lighting systems to be used for energy efficiency.

The company has worked with Phillips in engineering such solutions – and it is this type of collaboration that Kranendijk wants to see more of. “These are very relevant products in today’s society, there is a real demand from our business clients now for this in-built functionality and cradle-to-cradle is behind this way of thinking.”

In the four years since embracing C2C, the company has seen its market share in business-to-business carpet tiles increase by 10% across Europe. It now nearly accounts for a quarter of the market. It also is developing the capability to takeback and reprocess carpet material every year with the goal of being able to recover 50,000 tonnes of used carpet per year by 2020.

Kranendijk meanwhile remains passionate about C2C. “The first time we embraced it, it was a risk. You need to have sufficient courage to start a new philosophy. I personally saw the benefit of going down this route because I find it very logical – in nature, everything is recycled again and again. Cradle-to-cradle is nothing else than a very serious attempt to copy nature.”

Maxine Perella is Waste Market Editor at edie

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