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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2004 : New Perspectives

New Perspectives

A Letter from EnvironDesign 8
Learning firsthand how businesses, government agencies and NGOs are putting cradle-to-cradle thinking to work.

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Ideas can be contagious. Moving through culture from one person to another, a compelling idea can create small, relatively unnoticed changes until at some dramatic moment it begins to have a large effect. Malcolm Gladwell, borrowing the concept from epidemiology, famously called this moment “the tipping point.” The historian Thomas Kuhn, a student of scientific revolutions, called it a paradigm shift. Either could describe the emergence of cradle-to-cradle design in mainstream business culture, a positive epidemic that is beginning to create big changes in the design of our world.

Cradle-to-cradle design is being adopted in the world of business because it offers a positive effect framework for economic activity, from the design of safe, healthful products to the creation of productive, cost-effective factories that revitalize the landscape. In a cradle-to-cradle business, products are designed for closed-loop systems that generate no waste: Bio-based materials replenish the soil after use, while high-tech materials circulate in perpetual cycles of production, recovery and remanufacture, retaining their value through many product life cycles. Ideally, cradle-to-cradle buildings and manufacturing systems are powered by the renewable energy of the sun and are designed to create more positive effects—more wetlands, more habitat, more clean water—rather than fewer negative ones. All of which adds up to enterprises that generate a wide spectrum of social, economic and ecological value.

After a decade in which cradle-to-cradle design emerged business by business, last month’s EnvironDesign8 conference in Minneapolis, MN, signaled that it has reached its tipping point. Since its inception in 1997, when 100 people gathered in Phoenix primarily to address environmental issues in architecture, EnvironDesign has become a diverse forum of innovative ideas. This year’s event was particularly notable for bringing together an exceptional group of businesses, government agencies and NGOs who are putting cradle-to-cradle thinking to work. Along with companies like Herman Miller, Shaw Industries and MechoShade Systems, which have been steadily integrating cradle-to-cradle design into product development, there were also representatives of promising new ventures that are carrying cradle-to-cradle principles beyond company boundaries into inter-business communities and the wider world.

Transforming an Industry: GreenBlue and The Sustainable Packaging Coalition
Generating this new kind of business-to-business community is one of the key reasons we helped found the non-profit GreenBlue (, which was established in 2003 to shepherd cradle-to-cradle design into the public domain and encourage its widespread adoption. Offering theoretical and technical expertise, GreenBlue uses cradle-to-cradle design as a catalyst for industry-wide change, inviting business competitors to strive together to create new standards and practices that will transform conventional manufacturing.

Consider the packaging industry. Currently, the life cycle of most packaging is a one-way, cradle-to-grave stream of materials. In the U.S. alone, 45 million tons of containers and packaging are discarded annually, creating a host of unintended environmental problems. But what if packaging flowed in cradle-to-cradle cycles, generating only positive effects? What if it provided nutrition for the soil and created no waste?

Those were questions that came to the fore in March 2003 when the EPA-sponsored Cradle-to-Cradle Design Challenge invited the industry to re-design e-commerce packaging. The purpose of the challenge was to stimulate creativity and offer the industry positive alternatives to regulation.

“Regulations will always be a part of the picture,” said Claire Lindsay, EPA Office of Solid Waste project director, “but we are also trying to find ways to encourage ‘beyond compliance,’ and cradle-to-cradle design is totally beyond compliance. That resonates with industry. Industry wants maximum freedom to innovate, and going beyond compliance by means of this new paradigm generates innovative thinking.”

Indeed it does. Not only did the design challenge encourage the packaging industry to consider the ecological and human health characteristics of materials, but along with a cover story in Packaging World on cradle-to-cradle design, it laid the foundation for an industry working group devoted to implementing cradle-to-cradle principles. After a pair of meetings arranged by GreenBlue, industry giants such as Cargill Dow, Dow Chemical, Estee Lauder/Aveda, Mead/Westvaco, Nike, Starbucks, Tropicana/Pepsi and Unilever organized to pursue a “positive, robust environmental vision for packaging” that includes developing cyclical material flows and increasing the demand for “environmentally intelligent, cradle-to-cradle materials.” The Sustainable Packaging Coalition ( officially launched in March 2004. We believe it will develop into a promising, replicable model for a business community, a model in which cooperation, quality and innovation drive mutually beneficial, industry-wide change.

Rethink, Redesign, Reinvent: The eDesign Challenge

The EPA Office of Solid Waste has also partnered with GreenBlue on the eDesign Idea Competition to develop cradle-to-cradle principles in the electronics industry. Like packaging waste flows, the electronics solid waste stream is formidable. It is also growing fast; electronics is one of the fastest growing sectors of the consumer products market and electronics customers are apt to replace quickly outdated technologies. Since only some of the disposed equipment is re-used or recycled into new products, valuable materials are lost, often creating unintended human and environmental health hazards.

The eDesign challenge is an effort to find viable alternatives by sparking creativity within the industry. As electronics designers work with and internalize cradle-to-cradle principles, they will be able to apply them to the design of products, production processes, distribution logistics and delivery systems. Cradle-to cradle principles also provide a platform for shared leadership and collaboration among the range of stakeholders—suppliers, manufacturers, dismantlers, government agencies, academia and non-governmental organizations—involved in realizing an integrated system of design, manufacturing and recovery.

The idea competition marks the beginning of a transition toward a new vision for the design of products and material recovery systems as well as a promising new relationship between EPA and industry. As EPA policy analyst Angie Leith has noted: “Looking into the future, we see that we have to look upstream. We have to look at materials flow management and not waste management. We have to think of cradle-to-cradle rather than cradle-to-grave. That’s the direction we want to go.” In other words, rethink, redesign, reinvent. And look for the eDesign Challenge’s winning ideas, which were announced May 12 at the 2004 Symposium on Electronics and the Environment (ISEE).

C2C Home
EnvironDesign8 also hosted the launch of the C2C Home design competition. The brainchild of Roanoke, VA, architect Gregg Lewis, C2C challenges the design and construction industries to rethink each step of building a home through the lens of cradle-to-cradle design, from sourcing safe, healthful materials to orienting a house on the solar grid to closing the loop on flows of water and energy.

Sponsored by the Roanoke Regional Housing Network with support from GreenBlue and the American Institute of Architects, C2C Home is a two-tiered competition. Invitations have been extended to every collegiate architecture program in the United States, while professional designers worldwide have been invited to compete in a separate competition. Selected student design teams will be offered internships in Roanoke and will help build the homes they design with assistance from the local construction community, which will also build the selected entries from the international design competition. The C2C Home sponsors anticipate building as many as 30 new homes in the inner city neighborhoods surrounding downtown Roanoke.

Lewis’s goals for C2C Home are manifold. First of all, he wants to start a conversation in his southwestern Virginia city about the benefits of design for sustainability. By building a variety of affordable cradle-to-cradle homes in downtown neighborhoods, he hopes C2C Home will provide a model for healthy urban growth and generate diverse communities that bring people back to the city.

This is crucial, he notes, because the inner city neighborhoods in Roanoke, like so many American cities, “have been decimated by sprawl.” C2C Home will encourage “the antithesis of sprawl” by building selected designs on vacant lots in or near downtown. “Ultimately,” he said, “we have to design and build diverse, vibrant city neighborhoods because truly sustainable communities are going to have to be urban-centered.”

Lewis also wants to show that cradle-to-cradle design offers more than a checklist of standards. “We have standards in place, and they’re a great starting point,” he said. “But this design assignment is not just about the bones of a house. It’s about how we live. And so we need more than baseline standards that set guidelines for energy efficiency or the use of sustainably harvested wood. We need to have a vision that is much more forward thinking and that’s what cradle-to-cradle design offers. It allows us to think long-term and pursue inspiring goals. It allows us to re-think the entire design process and build an entirely new approach to community development.”

Goodbye PVC
Further south, in New Orleans, another home building venture is creating a model for the healthy house, specifically, a house built without polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Cradle-to-cradle design begins with an assessment of materials to ensure that they are safe for human and ecological health, and the PVC-free house, featured by the Healthy Building Network at ED8, illustrates the ultimate outcome of that crucial first step: eliminating harmful chemicals
There is perhaps nowhere that this is more crucial than in Louisiana, home of an industrial corridor called “Cancer Alley” and the greatest concentration of PVC facilities in the United States. PVC presents a problem because its production, use and disposal generates toxic waste. A common ingredient of windows, doors, siding, wall coverings, interior surfaces and insulation, PVC contains hazardous plasticizers and toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Plasticizers are suspected of disrupting human endocrine systems, cadmium is known to be carcinogenic and lead is a neurotoxin.

Though a single home built without toxic materials does not address the fact that PVC plants in Louisiana have displaced whole communities, the builders of the PVC-free house, Greenpeace and Habitat for Humanity, hope it will provide a model for safe, affordable housing in the state and worldwide.

“Like homelessness, pollution is a global problem—one that disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color,” said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace. “This house will be a testament to two basic rights: the right to decent housing and the right to a healthy environment.”

Instituto de Empresa: Fostering Eco-Intelligent Management

C2C has also “tipped” abroad. While Europe, in most respects, is far ahead of the United States in adopting sustainable design, many of the initiatives there are geared toward making industry more efficient, rather than more effective. Instituto de Empresa (IE), a leading business school in Madrid, wants to change that by fostering eco-intelligent management among international business organizations.

Insituto de Empresa (IE) is well positioned to do so. Founded at the end of the Franco regime in 1975, IE was created to generate an entrepreneurial community in Spain and has since become one of the top business schools in Europe, ranked first by the Wall Street Journal and in the top five by the Financial Times. IE’s new Centre for Eco-Intelligent Management is an extension of its long-standing commitment to support socially responsible business.

Launched in February 2004, the centre will serve innovative businesses by providing research and training to senior management. The centre’s researchers will focus on developing case studies of C2C initiatives, which will serve as educational reports for MBA and executive training programs. By showing the benefits of profitable eco-intelligent products already in the marketplace and by illustrating how managers can play an active, leadership role in integrating cradle-to-cradle design into product development, the centre hopes to help business leaders transform their companies.

Gregory Unruh, academic director of the centre, believes reaching senior management is a key element of the transition to a cradle-to-cradle world.

“All of the organizational research done shows that these types of innovative initiatives are going to be successful only when they have support from the very top level of management,” Unruh said.

Top level managers, he added, are frequently not very knowledgeable about sustainability issues. The centre is therefore focusing its research efforts on doing systematic studies of successful cradle-to-cradle initiatives to “distill the factors of success, understand organizational barriers, and develop the management case and the management tools to help business leaders move their companies forward.”

In addition, said Unruh, the centre is training “MBA grads who understand cradle-to-cradle design and understand what it takes to implement it so they can go out and actually have an impact.”

Looking Ahead

All of these new initiatives represent a delightful prospect—and there’s more to come. Susan Lyons, who worked closely with us on the design of Climatex Lifecycle, the first cradle-to-cradle fabric, will be opening a new C2C design studio next fall. The studio will invite designers to work together creating innovative new products and it promises to be a cradle of creativity . . . At NeoCon 2004, MechoShade will unveil its new EcoVeil™, an eco-effective shadecloth for solar shade systems that was designed as a safe, technical nutrient that will be kept in a closed-loop cycle . . . GreenBlue will be working with designers and educators to bring cradle-to-cradle design into the classroom and will continue to develop cooperative working groups in electronics, packaging, textiles and cleaning products . . . In 2005 we can look forward to seeing C2C homes being built in Roanoke, and further down the road, to the C2C Home design challenge being repeated in cities across the country and around the world. Gregg Lewis has his eyes on a C2C Home design challenge for the athletes’ village at a future Olympiad, and it’s not hard to imagine that he will make it happen . . . and each spring, we will surely see EnvironDesign drawing these and other innovators together for three days of inspiring meetings.

This year, Gregory Unruh traveled all the way from Spain to attend ED8 to take part in a GreenBlue workshop and “meet with the companies that are implementing cradle-to-cradle design—the Shaws, the Herman Millers, the Visteons.

“Obviously,” he said, “EnvironDesign is the nucleus of this. The people I met and talked with in Minneapolis are really trying to apply what seems to be the only logical solution to the business sustainability challenge. And it was especially encouraging to hear Shaw’s Steve Bradfield say: ‘Sustainabilty is our goal; cradle-to-cradle is our path.’ I really do think we’re at a tipping point.”

William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective design and commerce strategies. For more information, visit

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