Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue – Designing out the risks new levels of quality and safety in product design”
Cradle to Cradle® Case Studie
Project Swiss Re and EPEA Switzerland
At the ends of their life, organic structures break down and return to their constituent parts. This is the principle embodied in the Cradle to Cradle® concept. All of the goods we utilize during their lifetime should be able to be simply and effectively broken down at the end of that lifetime. This approach necessitates a new approach to our design of goods. Any new design of products also entails new potential risks; and it is these risks that must be eliminated at the design stage.
History of the concept
The Cradle to Cradle® concept (C2C) is a design principle linked with a proprietary system of certification that stands for the premise that humans can have a positive ecological footprint by redesigning systems which support life. The term itself was created by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in the early 90’s. Dr. Braungart is a German chemist and former Greenpeace activist, who is now a professor at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Nederland. He is the founder of EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency) Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH in Hamburg, Germany, and the cofounder of MBDC McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in Charlottesville, Virginia. William
McDonough is an American architect. C2C was further developed in the book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, published in 2002, which Dr. Braungart wrote together with William McDonough.
C2C is a positive message. It is not simply another “eco label” in which a product is certified as being “green”, but rather a quality brand. The process of “avoiding, minimizing, reducing the risk, etc.” is a sad agenda, whereby we optimize things to make them less bad. Reducing a risk is not protecting society from it. By merely reducing environmental risks, Earth will still become a graveyard of waste. C2C focuses rather on innovation and quality. The process starts with the question, “Are we doing the right thing?”
The C2C concept gradually gained momentum over the course of the last decade; but became particularly prominent in 2006 after the opening of two films. The Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth was particularly bleak viewing for those in the Netherlands, given its predictions of sea level rises. Another Dutch film, Waste = Food, specifically highlighted how C2C could be practically utilized to minimize waste. The Netherlands is now one of the main centres of the C2C movement. In 2009 the Dutch government pledged to prefer sustainable goods and those C2C certificated in its official procurement practices.
Cradle to Cradle® products
The C2C method of production is in direct contrast to the “Cradle to Grave“ model in which material flows are formed without any conscious consideration of protecting resources. Rather than attempt to reduce the linear material flows and present-day methods of production, the C2C design concept envisages their redesign into circular nutrient cycles in which value, once created, remains of worth to both man and nature.
There are two categorizations of C2C products:
• In a biological metabolism, lots of materials are broken down by micro-organisms to form new
nutrients. Biodegradable products are used as compost which is then used to form a nutrient
basis for new natural resources. All products that are circulating as part of this metabolism are
termed consumption products. Certain packaging materials, clothing and parts that wear and tear
such as car tyres and brake discs were designed for such a cycle.
• A technological metabolism consists of artificially-created and actively-managed material flows.
The idea is that industrial mass is allowed to circulate in closed systems whilst maintaining a
constant quality level. The fact that the system is a closed one is a prerequisite for the possible
use of toxic substances. These substances have proven to be essential in the manufacture of
certain products such as insulated windows. The ease of disassembly and the careful choice of
materials for a product is a fundamental aspect of the design.
These two points underline a new way in which the C2C concept regards material goods. Rather than products becoming possessions of the purchasers, the purchasers instead become long-term leasers of the product. Thus, a washing machine is transferred into our ownership for, say, a ten year period from the supplier. At the end of its life time the supplier takes charge again of the washing machine to dissemble it and recycle or dispose of the components.
This approach has many advantages. Most obviously the supplier takes charge of the product at the end of its life, rather than the product simply becoming landfill. That saves space; potential toxic waste; and valuable raw materials, such as rare metals. Moreover, with the onus on the supplier to take back the product, there is a natural incentive to (i) build quality into the machine, so that it performs over its lifetime; and (ii) that the product is easily disassembled and the rawmaterials can be used for next lifecycles.
Recycling –degrading a product to reuse it – can become up cycling – where the product can be reused without its degrading. The C2C process closes the loop in product life spans.
Designing out the risk
C2C products do not come without new risk. Many products are assembled with techniques and materials that are not well suited to disassembly and reuse or biodegradation. New glues and solvents, for example, which allow disassembly, may not have a track record to assess potential losses along the product lifespan. New materials may be employed, for example biodegradable plastics, the lifetime of which is not necessarily known. This could have serious implications in, for example, the motor trade. To seek to minimise and mitigate these risks, C2C products are officially certified. C2C certificates ensure that products use materials that are environmentally secure, healthy and „cyclable“. Additionally, the use of renewable energies, a responsible attitude towards water usage as well as other social aspects are considered. The certificate is valid for one year. Recertification entails the product quality being confirmed and indeed there is also the possibility that if progress is made, a higher grade of certification can be achieved. The certification portrays to what extent a product satisfies the requirements of C2C. There are four different grades of certification. They are Basic, Silver, Gold and Platinum.
For consumers, this certification process provides reassurance that the suppliers have managed any new risks associated with C2C principles. The need to see a product through its full lifespan underlines the quality of the product. Purchasing such products also underlines a commitment on the part of the consumer to buy into the concept of full „cyclability“.
Summary by Simon Woodward
This article is based on two events, a Risk Talk and an Expert Forum on Designing out the risks – new levels of quality and safety in product design, which took place at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue on 21 and 22 February 2011 together with Swiss Re and EPEA Switzerland.
Photographs Risk Talk by Marcel Büchel Swiss Re, Expert Forum by Fredy Lienhardt Swiss Re
©2011 Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue and EPEA SWITZERLAND GmbH