Sustainability in Action


by Andrew Sibley

A Titanic metaphor for industry and the natural world

In the spring of 1912, one of the largest ships ever built left Southampton, England, and steamed westwards towards the United States. It was the epitome of its age: the height of luxury, technology, prosperity and progress. It was, of course, the Titanic, and it was destined to come up against the natural world in the shape of an iceberg.

The ship’s demise forms the introduction of a highly influential book on sustainability. “One might say the Titanic was not only a product of the Industrial Revolution but remains an apt metaphor for the industrial infrastructure that revolution created…. It [Titanic] attempts to work by its own rules, which are contrary to those of nature. And although it may seem invincible, the fundamental flaws in it design presage tragedy and disaster.”

That book is Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough. Published in 2002, it heralded a new philosophy on sustainability called Cradle to Cradle®whose central premise is that products should be conceived from the very start with intelligent design and the intention that they will eventually be recycled, as either “technical” or “biological” nutrients.

The book’s authors are making the point that, like the Titanic, our industrial infrastructure remains “powered by artificial sources of energy that are environmentally depleting. It pours waste into the water and smoke into the sky.” The iconic ship merely represents an industrial and unsustainable model of take, make and waste that is out of balance with the rest of the world around us.


Take, Make, Waste

In looking at concepts of sustainability, it’s worth remembering that the sun’s energy is the only resource that is replenished every day. Everything else is finite. We live in an eco-system that is closed: what we use, we waste forever–and that’s the fundamental challenge facing the manufacturing industry. When our resources are gone, they’re gone for good, and so too our capacity to make new things.

The modern environmental movement essentially dates from the 1992 Earth Summit, attended by 167 countries, where the phrase “eco-efficiency” was coined. This, so it was hoped, would transform industry from a system that uses and throws away into one that integrates economic, environmental and ethical concerns. Essentially, eco-efficiency means doing more with less. The Conference Secretary-General, called it a “historic moment for humanity.”

For many companies, the eco-efficient approach has meant assessing manufacturing and distribution processes and then finding ways to minimize their impacts on the environment. It is, of course, an approach that is better than doing nothing. But, effectively, it’s neither a coherent philosophy nor an environmental solution because it’s about being “less bad” and believing it to be inherently ethical.

The scale of the environmental challenge is particularly significant in the flooring industry. Statistics from the USA suggest that carpeting is replaced on average every seven years, despite usually having a guaranteed life of between ten and 25 years. That means that a lot of perfectly good carpeting is thrown away every year because it feels outdated.

According to a British study carried out for the Contract Flooring Association, about 500,000 tons of carpet is thrown out in the UK every year. One estimate suggests that in the developed world some two percent of landfill waste is made up from old carpeting. Multiply those statistics across the world, and you can sense the scale of those wasted resources, when much of that material could be used again.


Carpeting and eco-efficiency

It’s an issue that is now of real concern across the carpet industry, with all the larger companies voluntarily addressing issues of sustainability. For some carpet manufacturers that has also meant reducing waste at source by using “natural” materials such as wool or sustainable plant fibers–most commonly, sisal, cotton, seagrass, jute or coconut coir. For others, it’s been about using, for example, open-cell polyurethane foam in their carpet backing, a post-industrial waste from the automotive industry, an innovative way of reutilizing someone else’s rubbish.

The cradle-to-grave manufacturing model was particularly suited to the carpet industry because carpet is a compact composite structure, comprising a number of materials that are both costly and difficult to separate and recycle. The most convenient and least costly options have been landfill or incineration for power generation–particularly since the calorific outputs from burning synthetic carpet match those of petrol or diesel. A number of European countries have been using old carpet for energy generation for some years.

Incineration rather than landfill is a good example of how eco-efficiency has positively moved the environmental argument forward. But it is an end-of-life option that doesn’t address the fundamental issues of resource depletion, and the environmental imperative of making better use of the materials from which carpet is made.



However, carpet and fiber companies are rising to the challenge. Despite the significant problems involved in collecting, sorting and transporting post-consumer carpet to be reprocessed, more and more companies in the sector are adopting recycling programs. These companies often work in partnership with entrepreneurial businesses that are creating local or regional carpet and textile collection sites, from which old carpets can, at least in part, be reprocessed.

It’s an environmental approach being increasingly shaped by legislation. For example, outgoing California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced the USA’s first product stewardship law (AB2398) to specifically address carpet. This collaborative piece of legislation also involved the carpet industry and non-governmental organizations. In Europe, forward-looking carpet companies are also pressing for legislation to make manufacturers responsible for end-of-life disposal.

Eco-efficiency has been an enormous step forward in galvanizing companies to think and behave in new ways. It has brought significant environmental advances–often from companies thinking laterally and working collaboratively. For example, in the flooring sector, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic beverage bottles are now being recycled by the millions to make polyester carpet fibers. Just recently, plastic bottles from the USA’s Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, are being sold to make carpet backing–in a mix of materials that also includes renewable soybean and celceram, a refined material recovered from coal-fired power stations. Again, someone else’s rubbish finding a new use.

For a growing number of manufacturing companies, including Desso, a European carpet manufacturer, it’s been about going beyond eco-efficiency to adopt a new theory of eco-effectiveness. Rather than view the manufacturing industry as depletive, it regards it as regenerative, designing goals that celebrate interdependence with other living systems. From an industrial design perspective, it means making products that work within a circular rather than a linear economy.


Cradle to Cradle®

Cradle to Cradle® models human industry on the natural world, a system in which materials are nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It’s a philosophy that uses nature as a template for how we can redesign everything that we do–including the manufacturing industry–to be more eco-effective.

It sounds deceptively simple, but it actually turns conventional sustainability on its head, because convention is all about a language of negatives. The green convention talks about “minimizing” human impacts, “zero footprints,” “banning” harmful substances or “reducing” energy use.

Instead, Cradle to Cradle® takes ethics out of the equation and paints an optimistic picture. It recognizes that bad and polluting products are not unethical; they are just poorly designed. Conversely, good and non-polluting products are not ethical; they are simply well designed.

In the living environment, materials are constantly being transformed without losing their capacity as nutrients; however, rotten apples are not recycled back into new apples. Instead, they are transformed into nutrients for other organisms by chemical and other processes. In nature, nothing is wasted; everything is reused. We can imitate nature by using innovative supply chain management to use materials from one industry to support others, eliminating the concept of waste because all waste becomes tomorrow’s raw materials or nutrients. Braungart and McDonough state that when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems–for example, the effectiveness of nutrient recycling, or the abundance of the sun’s energy–they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to co-exist fruitfully.


Ecologically intelligent design

It is no less than a manifesto for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design, a positive agenda that says that, if we work with nature, the manufacturing sector can be truly good. Time Magazine has called it “a unified philosophy that–in demonstrable and practical ways–is changing the design of the world.”

Desso, for instance, was first attracted to Cradle to Cradle® because its philosophy looks at the world with a new perspective. It doesn’t romanticize nature or demonize factories or manufacturing processes. It’s an approach that embraces our need to make things–and the goal should be to find ways that balance commercial activity with the natural world. In other words, it balances nature with human nature.

Put simply, Cradle to Cradle® makes planned obsolescence respectable. It encourages consumers to buy more products, but from innovative companies that have policies in place to truly recycle old products, turning waste into new products or into nutrients. After all, the alternative is for all of us to buy less. But if we do, that harms industry, job creation and ultimately, us. And does anybody want to use the same TV, car or mobile phone for 20 years at a time? Cradle to Cradle® allows us to feel good again about being consumers, but asks us to take responsibility for where we buy our new goods. It’s therefore a business approach that embraces the consumer, a strategy that says that, in everything we do, we should place real priority on people and the environment.

The challenges facing the global manufacturing sector are immense as we all grapple with the new environmental agendas of the 21st century. But what we’re seeing is a strategic change of attitude–the understanding that industrial development must be balanced by sustainability. And, it is heartening to see that a growing number of manufacturing companies are proving that the two concepts need not be incompatible.

Today, the manufacturing industry has the opportunity to find that elusive balance between people, profit and the planet–the Triple Bottom Line that is at the heart of the environmental agenda. Cradle to Cradle® may yet help to change the design of the world.


Andrew Sibley, a writer and marketer, works for Desso, a European manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass.


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