Innovation & Design

New Clout for Cradle to Cradle Design


Three leaders in sustainable-design consulting are collaborating to leverage their expertise, stimulate new products, and boost "cradle to cradle" certification

Three of the leaders in corporate consulting on sustainable design announced Sept. 19 an international partnership aiming to further the reach of the "cradle to cradle" design protocol. Joining forces are McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a Charlottesville (Va.)-based consultancy that focuses on environmentally friendly product-and-service design and development (with clients such as Nike (NKE) and Ford (F)); the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), a scientific research institute based in Hamburg, Germany; and Material ConneXion, a New York-headquartered consultant that advises Fortune 500 companies such as Whirlpool (WHR) and Procter & Gamble (PG) on high-performance materials. Each company will remain independent, but the three will collaborate on a series of workshops, share research resources, and conduct "cradle to cradle" certification.

The three principals hope that, by teaming up, they will exert yet more clout among the designers and executives responsible for developing a variety of consumer products or commissioning, designing, or retrofitting buildings around the world. The collaboration adds weight to the influence of the cradle to cradle philosophy already popularized by two of the partners, architect William McDonough and scientist Michael Braungart, who co-wrote the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press). The philosophy essentially is to create a product via a waste-free production process, using only reusable, biodegradable, or consumable materials.

The initial idea for the three-way partnership surfaced about two-and-a-half years ago during casual conversations among McDonough, Braungart, and design entrepreneur George Beylerian, Material ConneXion's founder and president, who is also known for introducing U.S. consumers to high-end Italian furniture in the 1980s and as the former vice president and creative director of Steelcase's (SCS) design partnership division. McDonough and Beylerian have been colleagues in the design field for 30 years.

"The exciting part for us, an enterprise in Charlotteville, and for EPEA, based in Hamburg, was to have a more global reach in the market of designers," says McDonough of the new strategy. He adds that the affiliation with Material ConneXion, already popular among design and architectural professionals, provides a design-centric strategy for developing sustainable products for corporations. "Designers offer key [audiences] for our protocol," he says. "The work of sustainability is the work of design."

How They'll Spread the Word

The partnership will offer various services, with fees ranging from $5,000 to $200,000 (the three partners do not disclose how profits will be split). Options include various workshops, including a general session during which participants can learn about available methods for creating sustainable packaging and goods. Another will focus specifically on cradle to cradle concepts and strategies, drawing on case studies from MBDC and EPEA and using Material ConneXion examples. Customized workshops can be organized for groups of designers and executives. Representatives from each firm will host sessions: with MBDC speakers addressing certification issues; EPEA staff discussing scientific research on sustainability, and Material ConneXion experts presenting the latest green fabrics and substances.

Eventually, the companies hope to develop new goods and services with their clients. "The goal is to have those who attend [workshops] work with us on product development," says Material ConneXion Vice-President Andrew Dent, who has a doctorate in materials science and spearheads the company's new-materials research.

In the meantime, cradle to cradle-certified material samples will be added to Material ConneXion's libraries in New York, Cologne, Milan, and Bangkok. These libraries, available as a resource for corporations, designers, researchers, and students, include 4,000 high-performance, high-tech, and sustainable substances, categorized by chemical properties. The cradle to cradle materials won't be separated from other varieties, so a company developing, say, a new type of office chair can compare different types of fabrics, woods, or plastics.

And the partnership will also help companies accomplish cradle to cradle certification, a system introduced by MBDC in 2005. Products are rated "basic," "silver," "gold," or "platinum," depending on their level of waste-free production and disposal techniques. In addition to chemical components, the energy and water used in manufacturing and the social responsibility of the parent organization are also considered. MBDC drew up some of the parameters, which are quantifiable; others are based on whether companies live up to statements of intent. Some judgments, such as water-usage efficiency, are based on recommendations from outside organizations, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To date, companies that have participated in the cradle to cradle certification process include office-furniture makers Steelcase and Herman Miller (MLHR), as well as Pendleton Woolen Mills and the U.S. Postal Service.

Spurring or Hindering Innovation?

Observers believe that such certifications are necessary. "Up until now, we've been in a stage where 'green' was really new. Nobody really knew what it meant. We didn't have standards. Any idea sounded good," says Alex Steffen, managing editor of the blog Worldchanging and editor of a book of the same name, both concerned with sustainable and socially responsible design and business.

"Now, we're in a different stage. There's a real shakeout. We need absolute standards against which we need to hold ourselves. Cradle to cradle methodology is one way—but of course not the only way—of accepting absolute impact," says Steffen. Other standards —and there are many—include the 18-year-old "green seal" for sustainable wood and environmentally friendly cleaning products and the "certified biodegradable" label, also used for cleaning products.

This past summer MBDC developed and launched the cradle to cradle seal, which looks like an infinity sign made of two C's. The company solicited "lots of input from clients," says McDonough. "Especially the U.S. Postal Service. They looked at prototypes and helped us with branding and co-branding." The postal service was also the first organization to use the logo on its products; the icon can be seen on Express mail and Priority mail envelopes. Other companies, such as Steelcase, are planning to use it on marketing materials, such as Web sites, brochures, and hang tags, as a way of branding the firm as eco-friendly and showcasing cradle to cradle certification.

But some observers believe that while it is a noble and practical step toward bringing to market more sustainable products, certification alone might at some point even hinder green innovation.

"Certification is a good interim step. But once it's reached, there's the danger that a company can then decide to stop pushing for more sustainability and move on to next flavor," says Stan Kaczmarek, an environmental engineer who oversees corporate audits for greenwashing at the New York-based advertising agency Green Team, which creates sustainable-focused campaigns for clients such as the World Wildlife Fund and Jaguar (F).

Sustainability: The Work Never Ends

Kaczmarek, former director of global environmental affairs at Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and a senior engineer at Exxon (XOM), also suggests that cradle to cradle certification might have the most impact among business-to-business companies rather than consumers. And that suits the business plan of the new partnership nicely.

Meantime, encouraging a sense of increased, open innovation-style collaboration in the design of new sustainable goods and services is one of the key goals of the partnership. It's an approach that McDonough says will bring products to market faster for companies with ambitious sustainability agendas.

"One of the things you have to remember about sustainability is that it will take us all forever to accomplish," says McDonough. "Teamwork and collaboration are fundamental."


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