Going for gold with cradle-to-cradle: Interview with Bridgett Luther

The cradle-to-cradle concept is now hugely influential in terms of sustainable product design. Bridgett Luther, president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, tells Daan Elffers how this agenda is shaping up

Please tell us about the work of your institute

The main goal of the institute is to make cradle-to-cradle (C2C) the number one preferred gold standard for sustainability around the world. At the institute, we focus on one very specific leverage point: how things are made. This is such a big deal – so pervasive, and so ripe for transformation – it’s a major strategic leverage point for revolutionising the global commerce system.

The core function of the institute is basically to manage and continuously improve a public, third-party verified programme for designing and manufacturing safe and healthy products, in the context of so much more than a ‘regular’ circular economy model. We also work to increase the number of individuals and organizations qualified to help designers and manufacturers through this process.

What are the benefits of C2C certification?

The real payoff is having the opportunity in the long term to manufacture innovating, safe and healthy products in wide markets that redefine quality and beauty in ways that are in line with informed consumer expectations. Let’s face it, lovely-looking products that have health risks to people or the environment can’t really realistically be beautiful or high quality.

Our certified products programme provides product designers and manufacturers with systems-based guidance and accountable metrics for turning the making of something into a positive force for society and the planet. While ‘material reutilisation’ is one of the characteristics of a certified product, there are four other quality categories that make the programme about so much more than ‘closed loop’ – these are material health, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness.

If all industries would commit to the C2C certification process they would unite in creating polymers, resins, foams and surfactants, for example, that are safe for people and the planet. In fact, our 10 year goal is to allow every penny we make to fund some of that research for new materials. With positive innovations in hand, there’s no reason to repeat the mistakes of the industrial systems of previous centuries.

Companies that want to be good rather than less bad don’t want to use any hazardous materials at all. What are the key challenges during the process of phasing out, and what are the opportunities?

One of the challenges is that as companies go through the certification programme, they may find that some of the materials needed haven’t yet been invented! It is estimated that about 67% of materials needed do not yet exist. Similarly we’re finding that there are lots of safe and healthy materials out there, except nobody knows about them.

If you consider that 67% of what we need hasn’t even been invented, then somebody is missing an incredible opportunity. It’s a huge market opportunity that chemical companies aren’t really looking at, but should be, because it could actually affect their bottom line and increase their business. They have the capacity now to create the materials that people are going to be asking for in the future.

So it’s about products, but it’s also about innovation and creating new markets. As more people demand C2C certified products, so the demand for safe and healthy materials will increase. When more companies come on board, very quickly – commercially speaking within three to five years – we’ll see a boatload of new materials being invented.

One of the key elements of the C2C principle is material reutilisation. How does the C2C model turn the limitations of material scarcity into sustainable abundance, and what steps need to be put in place?

This is where recovery and reuse strategies get really interesting, because crucially it allows consumers to feel good about consuming. They’re participating in the creation of better products and helping to create morally responsible jobs.

The key requirement is that a product is designed for reuse right from the start, so that when it gets to a recycling facility the materials can be pooled and deployed effectively, reclaiming biological and technical nutrients. There may be some great materials in a chair that can be reused, but if the chair hasn’t been designed properly then it is difficult to get those materials back.

Secondly, it’s vital to have the infrastructure in place to collect the old products for recycling. There’s so much wasted potential here. In simple terms, my mailman comes up delivering my mail yet goes away empty-handed. The postal service could be a big part of optimising the nutrient stream.

We have to change our mindset. As soon as we start to make that sort of mental change, we’ll really be making progress. That’s one of the things I love about C2C: we talk about end of use, not end of life. We’re getting more people to think this way and changing the language accordingly.

Trends we see heading in this direction include reverse logistics, urban mining, and extended producer responsibility. When no-one sees a trash truck any more but only a ‘resource recovery wagon’ we hear the circular economy model at its best, moving forward in the public’s attitude. This is how we start to change our actions for the better.

What can we expect to see from the institute over the next few years?

C2C is the only certification of its kind that gives a visible indication of the entire sustainability of a product. Because of the multi-attribute criteria, it’s the best way to communicate a product’s sustainable attributes to the consumer, and shows that the company producing it is committed to making the world a better place.

People look for labels which clearly show what’s in a certain product, so they know what’s in them, or on them. So labelling products with C2C certification is a top priority, and consumers are going to see a lot more marketing and brand communications around certification. Clarity regarding the benefits of the product is paramount. We don’t want it to be just a boutique thing, we want it to be more mainstream than that.

We are focused on shifting the mindsets of manufacturers and designers to meet the expectations of those we see as the C2C generation, healthy children who grow up surrounded by products that keep them safe and healthy while raising their quality of life. Over the next years we’ll be employing this focus on healthy children to deepen the acceptance and embracing of C2C product innovations for homes, schools, clothing and textiles.

Ultimately, companies that embrace C2C are doing so because they see that they can grow thriving businesses in ways that create sustainable abundance, health, and even happiness. Once that light goes on in a business person’s mind, they ask why anyone would want to make products in any other way. In this world, commerce, consumption, business, and investment can make you feel good and enlightened, not guilty.

This is an edited version of the original full-length interview which can be viewed here

is founder of EMG CSR Consultancy

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