McDonough: We envision the world of production as ideally two streams: a
“biological metabolism” of bio-based materials that can be composted following their use to become food for the soil; and a “technical metabolism” of recyclable materials being perpetually reused, avoiding the landfill. It is a simple
concept, but can be challenging to implement. We are working from the elemental up, defining every chemical present at 0.01 percent or higher within a
product, understanding its human health, environmental and recyclability
characteristics, and then working to improve those as fully as possible. We say
that fully 95 to 99 percent of manufacturers don’t fully know what’s in their
products to this degree. For example, Material Safety Data Sheets do not go to
this level of detail, and thousands of chemicals are presumed innocent until
proven guilty, released into production without full information on their ecotoxicity. Cradle to cradle requires a designer to look to the vision, and then
bring that down into actual product design and material selection, to eliminate
the very concept of waste.
Organic food and fiber already are
prepared for the biological system.
The question is: how do we collectively
develop the infrastructure necessary to
recover those items locally and place
them into composters? Sellers of such
OP: I’ve seen that you’ve worked with major companies such as Nike and
Herman Miller to help them develop products using these principles. In the
real life application of these principles, what have been the biggest successes?
McDonough: We are gratified seeing the list of product types and company
names that are pursuing the Cradle to Cradle framework, where quality is
measured by price and performance, as well as ecological intelligence and
social responsibility. In response, these clients become our greatest allies—
pushing change throughout their supply chains, as well as to their competitors
and other industries. Case studies of success incentivize others to participate as
well. For example, we have worked with Nike on the design of buildings,
footwear and apparel, demonstrating how Cradle to Cradle can be applied at
various levels and to various objects. Our efforts to inventory, assess and optimize materials helps our clients improve their environmental performance for
the long-term. Herman Miller and other furniture makers such as Steelcase,
Haworth and Allsteel ask all their suppliers to provide ingredient data for
Cradle to Cradle human health and environmental criteria, to be assessed
before being used in products. Companies even compete in the marketplace
on the basis of our Cradle to Cradle Certification.
OP: What are some ways this concept can be applied within the realms of
organic food, fiber and personal care?
McDonough: The Cradle to Cradle framework can apply within any industry
and to any product type. For example, organic food, fiber and personal care
all require product packaging, which presents an opportunity for optimization.
Today there’s a disconnect between product and packaging. You’ve taken the
time to create a safe, organic product and now you put it in a package that
might include non-optimized materials, which more than likely cannot be safely reused and is a burden on the environment. Product and package both
need to meet our Cradle to Cradle principles. First a designer must decide for
which metabolism—biological or technical—the packaging will be defined. We
have certified all Priority Mail and Express Mail packaging from the U.S. Postal
Service by evaluating its ingredients, manufacturing systems and helping
improve the recyclability of all its components.
MBDC has helped the USPS
products should reach out to help
develop the composting system, as
well as engage their customers and
others on how to build local operations into community assets.
We are working with companies on
packages that are made from agricultural secondary materials and are
compatible with food use. In this way
food and its packaging are designed
intentionally for the biological cycle.
We worked with Designtex, a Steelcase
company, to develop a fabric, including colorants and finishing chemicals,
that is as compostable as the base wool
and ramie, and can be used as mulch
by local garden clubs. As a result of
our work, the fabric mill’s water effluent became as clean as its influent—a
success story on its own.
Personal care faces the issue of
packaging as well, but also safety of
the ingredients in the product itself
and how to differentiate oneself within a competitive industry. Personal
care that does not damage the user,
others’ health or the environment will
continue to be more and more important over time. We have certified
gDiapers as a flushable diaper insert,
which provides an innovative alternative to landfilling disposable diapers.
We also are working with consumer
product companies and manufactur-