'Cradle to Cradle' and industrial design in Asia

The economies of Asian countries, which together represent nearly 25 per cent of the world’s landmass and three in five of the world’s population, are changing at a bewildering rate, not least in the numbers of people moving to urban areas.  Indeed, one estimate suggests that up to half of all Asians will soon be city-dwellers – underlining how it is Asian cities, rather than countries and regions, which are behind economic growth.

That move from a rural to an urban economy, driven by the industrial sector, is having significant environmental impacts in a region that is particularly vulnerable to climate change – and experiencing everything from rising sea levels and cyclones to flooding and drought.  The environmental imperative has never been so important.

Asian companies looking to implement sustainable strategies would do well to consider a book called ‘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 whose central premise is that products should be conceived from the start with intelligent design and the intention that they will eventually be recycled, as either ‘technical’ or ‘biological’ nutrients.

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

The modern environmental movement essentially dates from the 1992 Earth Summit at which 167 countries were represented, and which coined the phrase “eco-efficiency.”  This, so it was hoped, would transform industry from a system that takes, makes, and wastes into one that integrates economic, environmental and ethical concerns.  Essentially, eco-efficiency means doing more with less.

Many companies have adopted an eco-efficient approach to sustainability, assessing manufacturing and distribution processes and then finding ways to minimise their impacts on the environment.  It is an approach that is better than doing nothing.  But, effectively, it is neither a coherent philosophy nor an environmental solution because it is about being “less bad” and believing this approach to be inherently ethical.

But for Desso and a growing number of manufacturing companies, environmental sustainability has been about an alternative approach - going beyond eco-efficiency to adopt a new theory of eco-effectiveness, which looks at the manufacturing industry as regenerative rather than depletive, and designing goods 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’ 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 “minimising” 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 recognises 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 by chemical and other processes into nutrients for other organisms.  In nature, nothing is wasted; everything is reused.  As in nature, so can we do the same, 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.

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.”

That doesn’t mean making products more durable or designed to last longer.  It doesn’t mean asking consumers to make do with their mobile phones or TV sets for longer, because consumption is bad.  ‘Cradle to Cradle’ makes planned obsolescence good; it makes consumption good.  It merely asks us, the consumer, to buy new products from companies committed to the most sustainable closed-loop manufacturing methodologies.

It is nothing less than industrial re-evolution but, as Albert Einstein said, if we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place.

This commentary by Andrew Sibley is part one of a two part series on the opportunities for ‘Cradle to Cradle’ manufacturing. Mr Sibley is regional sales and marketing director for Desso, a leading European manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass and sells in over 100 countries.

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