Inside the Cradle to Cradle Institute
By Joel Makower
It’s been about two and a half years since the launch of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the nonprofit chartered by architect and designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart to “bring about a large-scale transformation in the way we make the things we make.” And it’s been just over a decade since the publication of McDonough and Braungart’s book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the inspiration and knowledge base behind the institute.
Over that decade, the concept of “cradle to cradle”— that things could be designed and manufactured using materials and methods that would allow them to be returned to manufacturing cycles, or to the soil as something benign or even beneficial — has been talked about increasingly. Indeed, the term itself is now used widely — misused, in some cases — by companies and governments around the world.
Of course, cradle to cradle — C2C for short — is more than a concept. It’s a certification standard, “a continuous improvement quality standard to guide product manufacturers and designers in making safe and healthy things for our world,” in the words of the institute.
Over the past two years, the organization, and C2C itself, has moved forward in fits and starts, seeking traction in the marketplace. A handful of leading companies — including Alcoa, Armstrong, Aveda, Dow, Eastman Chemical, Herman Miller, Method, Natureworks, Owens Corning, PPG, Shaw Industries, Steelcase, and the U.S. Postal Service — have certified their products against the institute’s standard, but the list has grown slowly, and most of these companies have certified relatively few of their products. The institute certified fewer than 100 products in 2012.
However, as 2013 gets underway, the institute seems to be finding its footing — moving out of the cradle and into maturity, as it were. Among other things, the institute has just certified its first external assessor (other than the two originators of the standard, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and EPEA Internationale): Washington, D.C.-based consultancy ToxServices. The institute also launched Version 3.0 of the C2C standard and rolled out a training module for a new generation of scientists, guiding companies toward basic, silver, gold, or platinum certification of their products.
C2C may be poised at last to become a force in the world of product design and manufacturing.
I recently caught up with Bridgett Luther, the institute’s president. I’ve known Luther since her days as director of the California Department of Conservation under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the perch from which she was first exposed to McDonough and Cradle to Cradle. In 2008, the governor signed into law the California Green Chemistry Initiative, aimed at reducing public and environmental exposure to toxins through improved knowledge and regulation of chemicals. The law mandated that the state develop regulations for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing chemicals, and develop a regulatory mechanism, including possible restrictions or bans on certain chemicals. (The law was scheduled to go into regulatory affect January 1, 2011 but was postponed indefinitely due to concerns raised by stakeholders along with controversial last-minute changes in the final draft.)
Luther had seen McDonough speak and became a devotee — “I probably passed out 100 Cradle to Cradle books,” she says. She saw the California law as an opportunity to bring Cradle to Cradle to the mainstream and signed on to lead the fledgling organization after she left government. Since then, with her small team in San Francisco — working with McDonough’s team in Charlottesville, Va., and Braungart’s in Hamburg, Germany — Luther has spearheaded the effort to make Cradle to Cradle a widely used product design standard.
Luther says that demand for product certification is starting to grow. “We’re getting calls every day asking, ‘How do I get certified?’” she told me. “So we’ve decided we’re going have some training. We’ve trained one assessor and we’re going train another in Europe in the next couple of months. Over the year, we will have somewhere around a couple of dozen assessors who will be working directly with companies.” After that, she says, will be C2C assessors in Brazil, Taiwan, possibly Mexico, and beyond.
The demand for certification from bigger companies is just starting, says Luther. “Some of the big leaders are tip-toeing into it — you know, ‘Maybe we’ll do one product and we’ll see how it goes.’ That won’t get us very far. I think they need to be like Method — make a company-wide commitment to getting their whole product line certified.”
Luther believes that’s inevitable. “We had a booth at Greenbuild and had a lot of people coming by, asking about certification — people that you wouldn’t have expected. I think when you and I have this conversation next year, we’re going to see a big uptake in the number of companies that want to get their products certified.”
One of the challenges faced by Cradle to Cradle at the beginning was a perception that it was a “black box” standard whose components could only be seen by McDonough and Braungart. Over the past two years, the co-founders have stepped back: They no longer sit on the institute’s board. The standard-setting process is overseen by an 11-person Certification Standards Board, making the whole process more open and transparent. But the institute has still to overcome the old perception, as I’ve heard from some of the companies I’ve talked with about C2C.
Another challenge, as I see it, is the number of companies that still refer to “cradle to cradle” as a generic concept, not in the way McDonough and Braungart — and the institute — intended — as a certification standard; indeed, I’ve heard the term used as a synonym for “closing the loop,” or even “recycled.” In a world in which everything is “cradle to cradle,” I asked Luther, doesn’t that diminish the certification’s value?
(Mea culpa: On GreenBiz.com, where we tag stories with keywords, many of the stories tagged “cradle to cradle” don’t have anything to do with the institute, McDonough, Braungart, or product certification.)
“I don’t think so,” she responded. “I think it makes it even more valuable. The certification says, ‘Here is my company that is actually following the cradle-to-cradle principles, and I’ve implemented those in the way I make, design and produce my product, and here’s a verification from this third-party non-profit that basically says, ‘Yeah, they’re following their rules.’ I don’t think we’re trying to control the name Cradle to Cradle. What we will try to control is the use of the mark so that the people that are doing the hard work actually get credit for it.”
These are solvable problems, and Luther and her team are well aware of what it will take to overcome them. Such challenges are common to start-up nonprofits (and for-profits), hardly fatal flaws.
There are some positive megatrends that could propel C2C forward. Concern over the health and environmental impacts of toxins continues to increase in lockstep with calls for increased transparency about product ingredients and companies’ sustainability performance. That could make Cradle to Cradle certification a more valuable commodity. Innovations are bringing continuous waves of greener materials into the marketplace, making them cost-competitive and making it harder for companies to hide behind polluting or toxic manufacturing practices. And, sooner than later, one or more big companies will step forward, committing to C2C for a large swath, if not all, of their products, elevating C2C beyond its current niche.
That’s Luther’s vision. “When we talk next January to take the pulse of Cradle to Cradle,” I asked her, “what’s the story you hope to be able to tell?”
“I hope I’ve gotten a dozen CEO’s that have said that their products will be Cradle to Cradle certified,” she responded. But she acknowledged, “It’s a long-term vision. Over time, 120 companies become 1,200 companies, become 12,000 companies and suddenly you’ve got this huge shift towards better materials, safer materials, healthy materials.”
She continued: “I think a lot of companies now are getting it, and the more people we train who understand what Bill and Michael were trying to do on the certification program, the more likely it is that we’ll get those dozen CEO’s that can see the future and understand that C2C certification is a path that gets you there.”