Understanding Labels Part 3: Cradle To Cradle, or A Cautionary Tale

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Images credit MBDC

Part of a series looking at green labels: what they mean and how they work. See Understanding Labels Part 1: Are They Green or Greenwash? Yes. and Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash

I mean, what's not to love about Cradle to Cradle, the certification system founded by William McDonough and Michael Braungart? Who wouldn't share their goals of "a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power- economically equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed."

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Waste = Food

It is a TreeHugger dream, based on the principle that WASTE=FOOD; that everything should be designed so that its components are either biological nutrients, capable of being composted and returned to the earth as food for more plants and animals, or technical nutrients, capable of being easily separated and properly recycled.

More precisely, from the Cradle to Cradle website:

Cradle to Cradle® Certification is a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product's safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles. The program provides guidelines to help businesses implement the Cradle to Cradle framework, which focuses on using safe materials that can be disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients. Unlike single-attribute eco-labels, MBDC's certification program takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the sustainability of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product. The materials and manufacturing practices of each product are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship, and Social Responsibility.

Products or materials from any industry can apply for C2C certification. They proudly say:

Consumers can rely on the certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products for their homes, businesses, and buildings.

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More Than Just A Certification

Cradle to cradle is more than just a certification, it is a design philosophy. Herman Miller uses it, and designed this gold-certified chair that can be broken down into its component parts in less than fifteen minutes for full recycling. They claim that designing for C2C makes their products cheaper and better because they go together faster too.

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When you look at Cradle to Cradle certification criteria in greater detail, you see that for every product, the key first step is to identify every component. All are assessed based on their intended use and their impact on human and environmental health.

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They have a database and colour-code the components, and different levels of certifications allow different mixes and proportions of different levels.

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When one looks further down the summary criteria, one sees that at the basic level there is some concern about reutilization, renewable energy, water quality and social responsibility, but not much until you go for the gold level of certification. In fact, it isn't until you get to the platinum level that even 50% of the assessed components have to be green. No products have yet been certified platinum.

From soap to carpet to diapers to ....??

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A few hundred wonderful products have Cradle to Cradle certification, most at the silver level. They range from cosmetics to fabrics to diapers to furniture to....

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Fiberglass? From virgin glass? We have called the stuff a lot of things at TreeHugger, but green isn't one of them. (see Fiberglass: Is Pink Really Green?) It takes a lot of energy to make, and some have called it "the asbestos of the 21st Century". The Material Safety Data Sheet indicates that it contains 0 to 5% petroleum distillates. It also says that

In 1994, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) classified glass wool (respirable size) as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen"". This classification was primarily based upon the 1987 IARC classification. NTP is currently considering reclassifying this material.

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Image Credit Owens Corning MSDS

One begins to wonder how a product containing petroleum distillates and that is considered by some to be a possible carcinogen can be Cradle to Cradle Silver. But the fact is, you don't know and you cannot, because it is proprietary and they don't tell you. They don't list the ingredients and publish the spreadsheet or the formula for figuring out the nutrient calculations.

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Then there is Dow's XPS Foam. Alex Wilson at Environmental Building News has been on about polystyrene for years, because it contains he toxic fire retardant hexabromocyclododecane, or HBDC. In Environmental Building News, he quotes Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D:

According to Birnbaum, HBCD affects the liver and thyroid, it appears to cause neurodevelopmental problems, and there is some new evidence of effects on the reproductive system. "It also appears to be a CAR/PXR [constitutive androstane receptor and pregnane X receptor] inducer, many others of which are liver carcinogens," she said. HBCD itself has not yet been tested for carcinogenicity, according to Birnbaum. "I am concerned about the use of HBCD in consumer products, since it is escaping into the environment."

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And that is only one of the chemicals of concern in polystyrene. When the XPS got Cradle to Cradle Silver, Alex Wilson and his team were surprised.

"It is shocking that a product containing a persistent organic pollutant such as HBCD can be considered green," said EBN Advisory Board member Arlene Blum, Ph.D., about the certification. Her associate at the Green Science Policy Institute, Alex Madonik, Ph.D., is also surprised. "This certification in no way justifies the continued use of the brominated flame retardant HBCD," he said. "Since there is no doubt that HBCD will be controlled (and eventually banned) under REACH [the European Union's Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals], Dow should tell us what they are doing to replace it."


But when you go back to the certification criteria, it becomes clear that at basic and silver level, you do not have to get rid of toxic chemicals (unless it is PVC, the only knockout chemical)- you just have to have "a strategy developed to optimize all remaining problematic ingredients/ materials."

Is it really Green?

According to MBDC, they do go back and review the product annually to see if they are following the strategy. But is that enough? Alex Wilson doesn't think so. In an editorial he writes:
One realizes that, at the lower levels of certification (Basic and Silver), Cradle to Cradle Certification isn't really a product certification at all. With respect to chemical content, this recognition indicates that a manufacturer has disclosed to MBDC everything that's in the product and has pledged to improve the product over time....

Here's the problem: for designers--even those at the leading edge of green building--any level of Cradle to Cradle Certification creates a perception that the certified product is green.

And MBDC promotes this; as we noted earlier from their website,

Consumers can rely on the certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products for their homes, businesses, and buildings.

Fixing the Problems and Addressing the Concerns

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There are other issues with Cradle to Cradle, mostly dealing with the fact that it was not really a Third Party certification, since MBDC was both a design consultant and a certifier. This is being fixed; they have donated the certification mark and the Cradle to Cradle protocols to the new Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

The Institute will administer the Cradle to Cradle certification standard, provide training materials, and certify a community of assessors who issue product certifications. We will also oversee the evolution of the next generation of the Cradle to Cradle certification protocol.

A Cautionary Tale

There is so much to love about Cradle to Cradle. As a design philosophy, it is brilliant and a model for everyone. I admire William McDonough as an architect and as a thinker. As a certification system there are issues, and I hope that the new, truly Third Party assessment system and the next generation protocol will address them.

But again it is a cautionary tale, that one can fall in love with an idea, and after looking deeper, find out that it is not quite as wonderful as one thought. MBDC says that "Consumers can rely on the certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products" when in fact, at least at the basic and silver levels, you cannot.

Earlier posts in this Series:

Understanding Labels Part 1: Are They Green or Greenwash? Yes.
Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash

More on Cradle to Cradle:

Cradle to Cradle Announces Green Products Innovation Institute
TreeHugger Picks: Cradle to Cradle-Certified Products
USPS Goes Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart