Green Building/Remodeling What is Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing

Published on June 14th, 2019 | by Guest Contributor


What is Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing?

Cradle to cradle manufacturing is a style of making things that keeps the future in mind. In response to the dominant model of manufacturing which uses the cheapest goods and designed for the dump (planned obsolesce model), cradle to cradle design is a new way to think about how we make the things for our life.

What is Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing

What is Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing?

When speaking about products, we often say that they have a “lifecycle,” much like living things. For any product, you can consider how a product is “born” (made) and how it “dies” (ends its useful life). Naturally, the place and circumstances of a product’s birth is called its “cradle,” and the place and circumstances of its death is called its “grave.” Many products’ cradles involve the extraction of raw materials like trees, petroleum, and metals. For most, the grave is the landfill. This cradle-to-grave lifecycle creates a linear, unsustainable pattern of manufacturing and disposal.

As you can imagine then, cradle to cradle manufacturing is a different model for a product’s lifecycle. Cradle to cradle manufacturing takes the whole lifecycle of an item into account, including sourcing and end-of-life disposal. Wikipedia explains cradle to cradle as such:

“Cradle to Cradle design (also referred to as Cradle to Cradle, C2C, cradle 2 cradle, or regenerative design) is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems. It models human industry on nature’s processes viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining a safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and technical nutrients. Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but also essentially waste free. The model in its broadest sense is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing; it can be applied to many aspects of human civilization such as urban environments, buildings, economics and social systems.”

what is cradle to cradle manufacturing?

In his book The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows, Ken Webster explains that “Cradle to Cradle design perceives the safe and productive processes of nature’s ‘biological metabolism’ as a model for developing a ‘technical metabolism’ flow of industrial materials. Product components can be designed for continuous recovery and reutilization as biological and technical nutrients within these metabolisms.” (pg. 51)

In simpler terms, cradle to cradle separates all products into two categories: the biosphere and the technosphere. Many of the things we make can be broken back down in nature, such as paper, natural-fiber cloth, and even bioplastics. Anything that can’t be returned to the biosphere (composted) should be returned to the technosphere. Metals, plastics, and other man made materials should be designed to be infinitely recycled into other high-quality products. Therefore nothing “dies,” but every product is reborn, returning to the “cradle” for another useful life.

The term cradle to cradle (C2C) was coined by William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart. In 1992, they published The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability. In 2002, they published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, encapsulating a journey of discovery about materials as biological or technical nutrients and their use periods and evolution. You can read a review of Cradle to Cradle here on Grist. They created a framework for quality assessment and innovation: the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products Program.

cradle to cradle logo

C2C certification ensures that products have met the following principles:

  • Material Health: Value materials as nutrients for safe, continuous cycling
  • Material Reutilization: Maintain continuous flows of biological and technical nutrients
  • Renewable Energy: Power all operations with 100% renewable energy
  • Water Stewardship: Regard water as a precious resource
  • Social Fairness: Celebrate all people and natural systems

What is Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing As explained in Green Building Elements by Dawn Killough in 2014, companies can now pursue only the Material Health assessment. Killough explains:

“The requirements for Material Health certification are the same as in the standard C2C protocol. It starts by performing studies to identify the component chemicals present in a material and comparing them to several lists of known hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals. The material is then assessed for the potential hazards posed to manufacturing employees, installers, and building occupants.

The standard requirements for Continuous Improvement and Optimization and Site Visit of the Production Facility must also be met. This means that with each re-certification (performed every two years), the material’s manufacturer must show improvement in the disclosing of chemicals used (reports must be more in-depth than previously submitted) and improving the health of the material, and it must host a visit by the certification body. Once approved by a third-party trained in C2C assessment, the product is certified for two years and will be listed on the C2C Material Health Certificate Registry.

Industry groups, nonprofits, governments and companies of all sizes and industry are prioritizing the identification and elimination of chemicals of concern, driving manufacturers to know more about the chemicals in their products and supply chains; be more transparent about the chemicals in their products; avoid chemicals of high concern and shift to inherently safer chemicals; and commit to continuous improvement toward greener chemistry in their products. The Material Health Certificate offers an easy reference for specifiers and owners to understand where the product is on the path to being safe for humans and the environment.”

In another article on Green Building Elements, Killough quotes Dr. Braungart, one of the founders of C2C: “‘Cradle to Cradle is about inspiration, celebration of the human footprint,’ he said. ‘It’s not minimizing negative impact, nor optimizing existing bad practices. This is a step-by-step journey, which needs solidarity, transparency and commitment from all stakeholders ­– manufacturers, suppliers, consumers – as well as creativity and innovation to design high-quality and eco-effective products.”

Watch this TED Talk featuring Braungart to learn more about C2C:

Dr. Braungart believes that the C2C approach can be inspiring for designers and manufacturers as they rethink common materials and strive to find raw materials that are safe and good for people and the environment.

Similar to C2C is Life-Cycle Analysis, another sustainability metric that guides design, sourcing and manufacturing. LCA looks at the the sustainability of each ingredient or resource, and calculates an overall LCA for a product. While both metrics are important, and are very similar in design, there is some question about whether C2C and LCA are totally compatible (pdf).

Why Choose C2C?

There are many benefits of pursuing C2C manufacturing, and designing with C2C principles in mind can benefit people, planet, and profit– the definition of the triple bottom line of sustainable business.

For businesses, C2C demonstrates that a business has long-term sustainability in mind, and that it is working hard to improve their manufacturing processes.

For the planet, C2C manufacturing means that the company is not producing unnecessary chemicals or waste that can affect the long-term health of the planet. Our consumer-driven culture means that we create a truly unbelievable amount of waste in sourcing, production and purchasing of products and services. Reducing the output of waste from the consumer end– with efforts like conscious consumerism, minimalism, and recycling– is important, but companies can make an even bigger difference in the design and production stages.

And for people, the Institute encourages companies to honor communities and workers through fair treatment and healthy workplaces, and inspiring employees and suppliers to work on more sustainable products and designs. It is often low-income communities and communities of color that are bear the brunt of unhealthy production, whether it’s fumes leaking from factories, damaged local air quality, or untreated discharge from chemical plants, more sustainable manufacturing can be safer for the broader community and for workers too.

benefits of cradle to cradle manufacturing

Practical Use of C2C:

Companies around the world employ C2C methodology to improve their products. Some of the more well-known brands include Aveda, a skin and haircare company. Method, a cleaning product company, also uses C2C to create their extensive line of cleaners, soaps and products. There are dozens of other companies with building materials, home design and clothing doing manufacturing better with C2C principles. Find all C2C certified businesses here

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

Twenty years after working in C2C, McDonough and Braungar created the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a non-profit which works to educate and empower manufacturers of consumer products to become a positive force for sustainable design, helping to bring about a new industrial revolution.

The Institute administers the publicly available Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard which provides designers and manufacturers with criteria and requirements for continually improving what products are made of and how they are made. The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ mark provides consumers, regulators, employees, and industry peers with a clear, visible, and tangible validation of a manufacturer’s ongoing commitment to sustainability and to their communities.

The Institute is governed by an independent board of directors and is led by Bridgett Luther, former director of the California Department of Conservation. It is headquartered in San Francisco, California, with offices in Amsterdam and Venlo, the Netherlands.

And here’s an awesome infographic from our friends at Green Building Elements to help explain a bit more about the benefits of C2C processes:


For more green business and manufacturing strategies, check out our article on biomimicry!

Image credits: barcode image and factory image from Shutterstock. All other images from Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.


Sarah DePhillips contributing author.

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