The World I Want Our Children to Have: Designing for the Circular Economy
What if we had a chance to live in a world where the carpets under our feet, rather than releasing toxic compounds, clean the air? Where carbon dioxide emissions, formerly destined to pollute the earth’s atmosphere, become bricks paving the bike paths of public parks? Where textile mills, instead of contaminating the water supply with dyes and other hazardous chemicals, actually detoxify our rivers? Where instead of constructing buildings that make us sick, we mass-produce health?
Take a good look around, because the world as we know it is changing. Modern industry — conventionally wasteful, destructive and shortsighted — is at a turning point, with tremendous potential to become a driver of materials innovation, human wellness and economic growth. The engine behind this change is a revolution in product design and manufacturing powered by a philosophy known as “cradle to cradle.”
That term — coined by architect Walter Stahel in the 1970’s and later developed by another architect, William McDonough, and a chemist, Michael Braungart, into a fully realized approach to design — is shorthand for a concept that’s as radical as it is realistic: humans should take inspiration from nature, giving rise to truly useful, holistically minded products that generate ongoing nourishment, not waste. (If you haven’t read the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and the follow up book: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, be sure to pick up a copy. Bonus: it’s printed on a sustainable polymer, not paper.)
As a longtime environmental and social advocate to non-profits and industrial manufacturers alike, and now as Interim President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, it’s my happy job to help companies understand this mindset. The Institute’s role is to provide an indication of progress toward these ideals through levels of certification, guiding designers and manufacturers through a process that looks at a product through five quality categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness. I’m always amazed to see the ways in which manufacturers innovate to improve their products and realize this vision. This post is the first in a regular series (keep checking back!) that will highlight heroes of this new industrial revolution and show what’s possible.
Consider these brief examples from my recent travels in Europe. At last month’s Global Change Awards in Sweden, kicked off by H&M’s Conscious Foundation, the excitement was palpable as I gathered with a roomful of industry powerhouses to honor disruptive achievements in textile innovations, upcycling and eco fashion. Before that, on a visit to Park 20/20, the first full service cradle to cradle working environment in the Netherlands, I was delighted to stroll past a wall of “click bricks” — building blocks intended for repeat use and put together without mortar for easy disassembly. And just prior to that, I eagerly donned a hard hat to tour the new city hall in the Dutch town of Venlo, where one of the Institute’s offices is located, and where a cradle to cradle masterpiece crafted from non-toxic, highly durable Accoya® wood is sprouting to life.
Back in the U.S., I’ve been stunned by the beauty and utility of Method’s Chicago factory, the world’s first and only LEED Platinum-certified manufacturing plant for consumer products and a regenerative space for employees and the community. Designed by William McDonough and Partners, it is an exemplary building, one that sends a message about what our built environments can and should be. In addition to turning out responsibly made, eco-efficient and cradle to cradle certified soaps and detergents, the factory has a hydroponic rooftop farm managed by Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens that aims to grow a million pounds of fresh produce a year, distributing it to grocers in Chicago’s South Side.
Currently, over 95% of Method’s product lines are certified and over 75% have reached Gold, the second highest rating after Platinum, and above Basic, Bronze and Silver, in our overarching framework for measuring the business, environmental and social benefits of certification. Method is just one company of many that’s differentiating and growing profits with cradle to cradle certified products, partly in response to customers who want to know where the things they buy are made — and who are insisting on safe ingredients and products that can be perpetually cycled.
With more and more companies, industry leaders and consumers coming to the realization that the old way of doing things — that outdated cradle to grave attitude — breeds inefficiency, environmental damage and social inequality, not to mention poor product quality, it’s increasingly clear that good design is good for business. Applying intelligence, innovation and long-term thinking to industry means we can manufacture products with a promise of abundance and wellness, rather than under the looming specter of depletion and decay. Not only is this right and decent, but it also boosts efficiency, eradicates waste and generates real prosperity; cradle to cradle thinking is the design engine of the circular economy and ensures abundance for the future.
Perhaps best of all, the movement is democratic: anyone who makes or buys anything can get involved, helping to create a world in which the things we need and use aren’t “less bad” but are actually making life better. As the father of a two-year-old son, that’s not just a world I want for myself — it’s the vision we all need to achieve for the next generation and beyond.
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