Cradle to Cradle Design Ensures Sustainability

Cradle to Cradle sustainable design challenges conventional environmental thinking and practice. Ask three questions to verify a product’s green claims.

The magazine advertisement boasts the building developer is an environmental leader. You can almost smell the green in the appealing colour photo accompanying the ad. But is this a design for sustainable living or just greenwashing to convince readers to contact the developer?

William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, has been leading the way with sustainable design for more than two decades. Together with co-author Michael Braungart, he has challenged conventional thinking about what it takes to be sustainable. Based on their cradle to cradle approach, here are three questions to ask as a family or organization before making a green purchase.

Is the Design Based on the Principle of Eco-efficiency or Eco-effectiveness?

There are different levels of sustainability. In Cradle to Cradle, the authors distinguish between being eco-efficient and eco-effective.

Eco-efficient means consuming less and using fewer non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. This approach focuses on diminishing negative impacts from the use of fossil fuels and toxic materials.

Eco-effectiveness moves beyond environmental efficiency by creating products made from materials that can be used and reused. Old TV’s are recycled back to their manufacturers to become components in new TV’s, and materials from demolished or renovated building sites find new lives in recycled construction materials. There is no waste in a system that is eco-effective; it’s a closed-loop with negligible or no negative impacts.

Consumers would do well to verify where a product’s materials and components came from, how it was made, its ongoing environmental performance, and how it will be recycled.

Does the Building or Product’s Design Mimic Nature?

William McDonough + Partners has designed a high-rise office tower that behaves like a tree, making oxygen, distilling water and producing energy. The office building of the future was commissioned by Fortune Magazine, and includes a green rooftop that absorbs and cleans rainwater, solar power and geothermal systems that fulfill the building’s energy needs, and indoor gardens that have self-purifying water systems. By mimicking nature, the building helps solve real-world environmental problems.

Ideally, sustainable buildings and products purify rather than pollute; waste heat and carbon dioxide emissions from their creation or use become “food” or sustenance for future production. As a prospective client for a green building, for instance, ask probing questions about its effect on the water, air and land where it is located.

How Will the Building or Product Perform from a Social Perspective?

Buildings in particular have social impacts, externally on pedestrians and neighbouring residents, and internally on users or inhabitants. Questions of a social nature could include: Will the building/product promote health and well-being, and if so, how? Is indoor air quality assured? Do the product or building’s materials risk contaminating the environment, now or in the future?

Materials like nylon fibre in carpets can be recycled perpetually, providing high-quality high-tech ingredients for generations of synthetic products. The issue is not synthetic materials per se, but whether provisions have been made for their recycling.

McDonough and Braungart established MBDC, a product, and process design firm, in 1995. It conducts rigorous chemical analysis of products and offers Cradle to Cradle Certification of products based on five metrics: materials, nutrient (re)utilization, energy, water, and social responsibility. Organizations can work with MBDC to ensure the accuracy of their product sustainability claims.

Eco Design Claims

Be wary of claims to be sustainable. By asking questions about a product’s performance environmentally, economically, and socially, savvy purchasers can learn to distinguish between greenwashing and genuine sustainability. The goal is not to minimize negative impacts but to produce 100% positive ones.