Section 9.3: Cradle to cradle design

9.3.1: What is Cradle to Cradle?

Most products we sell or purchase are, by design, destined for a one way trip to the landfill or other forms of waste disposal at the end of their useful lifespan. This is the result of our long-term reliance upon the linear economy, and the so-called “cradle to grave” approach. The cradle to grave approach is the result of a resource use paradigm that sees the planet as supplier of unlimited resources and as a limitless sink for wastes.

To compensate for this resource depletion the slogan of the 3R (“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”) was developed. However, without making fundamental changes to product design, the environment continues to be contaminated, just at a slower rate. For example, current energy saving strategies simply prolong the lives of products or optimize them for down-cycling (they cannot be recycled at the same quality as virgin material). Although this reduces the resources and energy consumption rate, the products still end up in the “grave” in the end.

Life-cycle Assessment and its role in Cradle to Cradle

Life cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool that is used to evaluate and/or compare the environmental impacts and consequences of a product or process from cradle to grave. It considers and accounts for all inputs and outputs of a product’s life cycle from extraction of materials, via production, transportation, utilization or consumption, to disposal. The goal of LCA is to minimize the negative impacts of a product upon the planet, by reducing, reusing, and recycling materials; reducing energy and water use to attain eco-efficiency throughout the product’s lifespan. From this view, LCA can be viewed as a response to the view that our world’s resources and sink potential are both finite.

To address this flawed system, a new approach towards design and manufacturing was required. The idea of Cradle to Cradle stems from mimicking what nature does, where everything becomes a nutrient and can be returned to the environment or recycled without a loss of quality. To the existing well-known trio of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle”, the cradle to cradle approach brings in a fourth R – Redesign.

In pursuit of this, the Cradle to Cradle design paradigms adheres to the following three principles:

Eliminate the Concept of Waste
Waste does not exist in nature, because the processes of each organism contribute to the health of the whole ecosystem. Within the Cradle to Cradle framework, scientists, designers and engineers select safe materials and optimize products and services; creating closed-loop material flows that are inherently benign and sustainable throughout the production, use, and take back stages.

Use Renewable Energy
Solar derived energy includes wind energy,   certain forms of hydro energy, tidal energy and energy from biomass. The Cradle to Cradle design paradigm encourages active development of solar derived energy instead of passively limiting power usage produced by traditional unsustainable methods such as nuclear power and fossil fuel based power.

Celebrate Diversity
The Cradle to Cradle design paradigm recognizes and values diversity in ecosystems, culture, individual needs and problem solving. It recognizes that the way to solve environmental problems is not to pursue efficiency (which reduces harmful environmental effects) but to actively pursue eco-effectiveness, maximizing the benefits to ecology, society and the economy produced by human activity.

Watch this video for an insightful introduction to the Cradle to Cradle: “Introduction to Cradle to Cradle” – EPEA

The cradle to cradle concept proposes that products should be designed so that there is no waste, or that wastes produced can be used by another production process. It aims to break the linear model of resource use from extraction to disposal by closing the loop for every product or service entering the economy and ensuring that after its end-of-(useful)-life, every product serves as either nourishment for nature, or as high quality materials for new products. It is fundamentally a design paradigm based on the idea of nutrient management, which enables product materials to be up-cycled over and over again – with minimal impact and the loss of quality.

The following video of an interview with William McDonough (co-author of the Cradle to Cradle) summarily presents the principle behind the Cradle to Cradle concept: “William McDonough – Author of Cradle to Cradle”

Materials are categorized as either “biological nutrients” or “technical nutrients”. Biological nutrients are biodegradable and will easily reenter water and soil whereas technical nutrients will continually circulate as high quality and valuable materials within closed-loop industrial cycles. The figure below illustrates the biological and technical cycles of the

Source: C2C Platform Taiwan

9.3.2: The value of Cradle to Cradle products and services

Most corporate environmental journeys start with that approach: quantifying the carbon footprints, identifying ways of reducing it through minimizing waste, recycling, changing to renewable sources of energy, and setting incremental targets to improve performance throughout the manufacturing and distribution chains.  But it isn’t a philosophy of change. It considers (in isolation) everything that a company does, rather than the entire business (holistically).

Cradle to cradle works on the premise that products should be conceived from the very start with intelligent design and the intention that they eventually be recycled. It evaluates products and production processes to ensure they use healthy materials, clean energy, adopt responsible water use procedures, and enforce proper take back mechanisms to create an eco-friendly supply chains. In doing so, it presents a new way of designing products and services that function as solutions to the existing conflicts between economic growth, social benefit and environmental well-being.

Business Benefits

An integral part of the Cradle to Cradle philosophy is the belief that good design equals good business. Producing effective, safe, and re-usable goods can improve the competitive advantage of businesses in the marketplace. The economic impact of Cradle to Cradle certified products is shown through higher than average sales performance, positive growth and increased profits, alongside significant cost savings for water and energy used to create the products.




Cost Reduction

Companies can achieve structural cost reduction through re-using product material and increasing resource efficiency (thus saving on water and energy spending).

Since the year before certification in 2009, Mosa has reduced water consumption on site by 130,600m3 per year across both the wall and floor tile operations. This equates to a financial saving of 360,000 Euros per year.

Improved product value

Environmentally and socially superior credentials as a result of product optimization and C2C certification.

AGC’s sales over 21% higher than sector average considered partly due to winning new clients in green building market.

New revenue streams

Re-marketing product materials at the end of their traditional use.

Avoided risks

Avoiding traditional resource markets, thus reducing risk from volatile prices and supply disruption. Minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutant impacts.

100% of Aveda’s electricity is wind powered. As a result, they are not dependent on volatile prices of fossil fuels.

Social Benefits

The Cradle to Cradle certified products program adopts social fairness principles which inspire employees and suppliers to achieve their personal and professional potential, rather than simply avoiding negative regulatory risks. Social benefits are most strongly linked to improved transparency and commitment towards social goals. Social benefits related to human health are achieved through reduced pollution impacts from increased renewable energy mixes, healthier product materials and increased recycling of materials.




Improved transparency and commitment towards social goals

Companies evidenced a range of social fairness monitoring routines (operationally and throughout supply), including audits, management systems and third party certification.

Ecover’s purchasing department screens all of its suppliers on child labor, employee treatment and other social criteria, while encouraging suppliers to innovate with them.

Benefits derived from environmental benefits

Reduced pollution impacts linked to healthier product materials and increase of renewable energy use.

A significant change in the composition of the energy mix between 2009 and 2012 occurred when AGC Glass Europe switched from fuel oil to natural gas. The contribution of fuel oil dropped from 90% to 44% of the energy mix, bringing environmental and social benefits.

Environmental Benefits

The Cradle to Cradle concept fundamentally drives natural resource savings, waste reduction and development of safe product materials. This results in the conservation natural resources and minimization of pollution impacts. There are a variety of environmental benefits, including replacement of toxic materials with non-toxic or safe ingredients, designing products so they can be continuously re-used, thus meaning less use of virgin resources. Using renewable energy helps the fight against climate change, and better use of water means less use of a resource which increasingly causing conflicts around the globe. Environmental benefits are achieved through the replacement of toxic and questionable ingredients with non-toxic alternatives.




Manufacturing safe products, designed for reutilization of material at the end-of-use

Phasing out or eliminating hazardous materials and replacing them with healthy and safe alternatives, designed to be reused continuously in either the technical or biological cycle.

Aveda succeeded to make its packaging from 100% recycled plastic (compared to 80% without certification).

Increased use of renewable energy

Renewable energy provides many environmental and social benefits, including avoided air pollution and climate change impacts, alongside decreased dependency on finite fossil fuel resources.

In 2008, Construction Specialties did not make use of renewable energy. Since certification, this has increased to 50% of the total energy supply. This is associated with significantly less harmful emissions, for both people and the planet..

Improved water stewardship

Water conservation and protection provides vital social and environmental benefits including climate regulation, as well as underpinning essential business inputs.

Shaw was able to achieve a 48% increase in water efficiency.

Supplementary Resources

van der Grinten (2008) “C2C summary and design tools”

Euronews (2016) “Cradle to Cradle: Powering Europe’s circular economy”

C2C Certified “Benefits of the the Cradle to Cradle product program”

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