Eco-effectiveness and the Triple Top Line: Cradle to Cradle

Eco-effectiveness and the Triple Top Line

Desso is a leading European manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass and sells in over 100 countries.  Andrew Sibley, Desso’s regional sales and marketing director, explains how the Triple Bottom Line is being turned on its head.

The Greeks called it Helios, the Romans Sol and, despite forming over 98% of the solar system, it is technically a Yellow G2 Dwarf, one of over 100 billion other stars in the universe.

Every second it converts about 700 million tons of hydrogen into about 695 million tons of helium and five million tons of energy, generating 386 billion billion mega Watts.

It takes light from the Sun about eight minutes to reach Earth or 1.3 seconds for reflected light to bounce from the Moon, and without it we would be in a cold and dark place and, without photosynthesis, unable to grow food.  We couldn’t exist.

The Sun’s generosity is a good place to start in looking at today’s environmental imperatives of climate change and resource depletion, because the Sun’s energy is the only resource that is replenished every day.  Everything but the Sun’s energy is finite. 

In every other respect, we live in an eco-system that is closed; what we take, make and waste, we waste forever – and that’s the fundamental challenge facing manufacturing industry.  When its resources are gone, they’re gone for good, and so too our capacity to make new things.

It was that realisation that created the modern environmental movement, which in many ways can be dated from the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.  This was an unprecedented UN conference both in size and the scale of its concerns.  The Conference Secretary-General, called it a “historic moment for humanity.”

The Summit’s message was that only a complete transformation in our attitudes and behaviour would bring about the changes necessary to safeguard the environment.  It also coined the phrase “eco-efficiency.” 

This, so it was believed, 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.

Eco-efficiency has been the guiding principle ever since.  For many companies, it has meant assessing manufacturing and distribution processes and then finding ways to minimise their impacts on the environment - for example, by reducing waste or energy consumption.  Eco-efficiency has achieved enormous environmental benefits.

More than anything, it has brought the environment into sharp focus, bringing with it a shared sense of our impact on the world around us.  In a few short years we have collectively recognised the challenges of resource depletion and climate change and, as individuals, families, companies and governments are doing something about it. 

But eco-efficiency doesn’t have all the answers because, effectively, it’s about being “less bad” and believing it to be inherently ethical.  The Earth’s resources, except solar energy, will still run out, although at a slower rate.  Eco-efficiency buys us time, nothing more.

But a new environmental theory is gaining traction; a theory that suggests that, rather than make the wrong things less bad, we instead make products that are right.  The name of this theory is Cradle to Cradle®.

It was heralded in a book, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough. Published in 2002, its central premise is that products should be conceived from the very start with intelligent design and the intention that they would eventually be endlessly recycled in their entirety as nutrients.

Cradle to Cradle® looks at the Earth’s resources as either biological nutrients that are useful for the biosphere, or technical nutrients that are fundamental to the technosphere, the systems that comprise industrial processes.  It’s a theory that draws heavily from nature’s example; in nature, nothing is wasted: everything is reused in closed loops, over and over.

It’s a perspective that sees old products as nourishment: foodstuffs that can be disassembled and used to make new products, eliminating waste from the manufacturing cycle, because every old TV, carpet or washing machine – and everything else – will have been designed for disassembly and reuse.

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 fruitfully co-exist.

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 learn from 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.” 

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’s faded or just feels dated. 

According to a UK study carried out for the Contract Flooring Association, about 500,000 tonnes of carpet is thrown out in the UK every year.  One estimate suggests that in the developed world some 2% 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.

In 2007, Desso entered into partnership with the Hamburg-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA -, the brainchild of Cradle to Cradle® co-founder Michael Braungart.  EPEA encourages companies to assess their activities on sustainability, recycling, waste management and energy use – and make improvements throughout.

We have worked with EPEA to first identify the “material health” of each component in our products; assess how each component can be recovered and recycled in a process of “material reutilisation”; assess energy and water usage and, lastly, examine our policies on social responsibility and fair labour practices.  We intend that all our products will be designed and produced according to Cradle to Cradle® design principles by 2020.

For example, we have introduced EcoBase® - a carpet backing that can be entirely recycled back into carpet backing, and we are introducing Take Back™ programmes to ensure that products can be recycled according to Cradle to Cradle® principles.

That in itself introduces a new concept alien to most manufacturing industries – the concept of a product of service.  Instead of the current paradigm in which goods are bought, owned and disposed of, products containing valuable technical nutrients will be reconceived as new products that new consumers will wish to purchase.

In that manufacturing scenario, consumers would effectively buy the service of that product for a certain period and then, at the end of its useful life, the manufacturer would take it back, take it apart and reuse its nutrients to make new products.  Yes, we would still be in the business of selling products but, unlike now, we would retain responsibility for those products – to the end of their useful lives and beyond.

From a manufacturing perspective, 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.

There are obvious benefits for all of us.  First, it makes good business sense because, without waste, companies save money from having to source valuable new resources and, second, with nutrients being constantly recycled, it diminishes the need to extract any more new materials.  That really does change the design of the world.

The challenge for manufacturing industry is to find that elusive balance between people, profit and the planet – the Triple Bottom Line that is at the heart of the environmental agenda.  But too often, using the eco-efficient model, we have ended up concentrating on profit, with social or ecological considerations coming second.

Cradle to Cradle®  allows us to use the Triple Bottom Line as a strategic design tool and perhaps, as Braungart and McDonough suggest, turning that matrix on its head and considering corporate strategy as being about a Triple Top Line – a new starting point from which to design products and processes.

The Sun provides us with that starting point, an energy source capable of providing all our energy requirements many times over.  It simply requires us to look at our manufacturing processes in a different way: to make best use of the Sun’s abundance to make products circulating in endless closed loops.

It’s 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.

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