Plenty of products call themselves environmentally friendly, but no widely used standard exists to explain what being green really means. That hurts entrepreneurs trying to distinguish themselves as environmentally friendly, as well as consumers who can't be sure what they're buying. Cradle to Cradle, a certification program launched last year, attempts to change that.
During the past decade a few government and nonprofit initiatives have developed standards for certain types of products, but Cradle to Cradle is the first that covers a broad swath of goods, from food to surfing wax. The system is based on the sustainable design theories of William McDonough, an architect and co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry MBDC, a sustainable product and process design consultancy in Charlottesville, Va. "There was too much confusion in the market as to what green is and isn't," says Jay Bolus, vice-president for benchmarking and certification. "Our clients said: `We need some concrete proof that our products are better than our competitors."'
To earn certification, products must meet rigorous guidelines that vary by the level of approval sought. The first level covers materials and materials reutilization. After that are the premium silver, gold, and platinum levels that take into account water and energy use, as well as social and workplace policies. A CEO, for instance, might be required to sign a statement saying that the company adheres to certain criteria concerning child labor, collective bargaining, and workers' compensation. If those criteria are internally developed, the company would be eligible for silver status; if they're internationally recognized, the company might qualify for gold or platinum.
Still, because products, not companies, are certified, it is possible that a company that manufactures something that isn't ecologically friendly can earn certification on another product. "One product could be certified and another could be nasty," Bolus acknowledges.
Companies pay MBDC a fee of $10,000 to $70,000, depending on the product's complexity, for an evaluation, plus an annual recertification charge of $2,000. Most products pass muster, in part because MBDC works with manufacturers to overcome problems. Awardees get to display the Cradle to Cradle logo on their packaging. About 30 products have been certified so far, including those of smaller companies such as gDiapers and Wet Women, which makes a natural surfboard wax.
Morgan Fisher, founder and president of Wet Women in Paia, Hawaii, says the process was relatively easy. "They helped us get through it," says Fisher, adding that MBDC advised her to eliminate 2 of the 15 ingredients in the wax because they wouldn't be approved. With several other waxes claiming to be eco-friendly on the market, Fisher says the $10,000 fee was money well spent. "This certification will put us on top of the others," says Fisher. "Nobody will question what we are doing."