What Is Cradle to Cradle? Principles, Design, and Certification

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Cradle-to-cradle (C2C) is a way of designing products or processes that work more like natural systems. This design method is intended to replace a make-take-dispose approach which begins with new raw materials mined from the earth and ends with piles of garbage.

This approach is modeled after nature's long-evolved, low-waste, energy-conserving processes. Just like a tree is born from soil created by other dead trees, grows using local resources, produces fruit or seeds, and then dies, in turn creating food and soil for other organisms (a cycle), human beings can make products that are part of an ongoing circular system. In that way, C2C is sometimes referred to as being biomimetic.

For example, say you want a chair. The conventional cradle-to-grave model would include extracting petroleum products and metals from the earth, and expending tremendous energy to transport and manufacture them into a chair that's used for a few years, then breaks or isn't needed, and ends up in the landfill. In the C2C model, the chair is made from materials that are already part of an existing use cycle, and at end of life, the materials it's made from enter the cycle to be used again to make something else. That could be another chair or another type of product.

Cradle-to-Cradle Definition

Cradle-to-cradle as a concept is often credited to Swiss architect Walter Stahel; he and co-author Genevieve Reday wrote about an economy that used loops in a 1976 research report to the European Commission. Stahel worked on developing this new way to manufacture products at Geneva's Product Life Institute. It had four goals: "a product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, and waste prevention," according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Today, the term "cradle-to-cradle" is a registered trademark of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) consultants. In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart published a book called "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things," which brought the idea to both design professionals and a popular audience. The book is both a manifesto that details how C2C could work and proof of how it does work through real products as examples. It was followed by a second companion book in 2013, "The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance."

Since the popularity of the first book, the ideas of cradle-to-cradle have been utilized by companies, nonprofit organizations, and governments, most predominantly in the European Union, and it is also seen in China and the United States, Canada, and Australia.

What Is Cradle-to-Grave Design?

The cradle-to-grave design (or take-make-waste) is how most products we currently use are made. That system relies on an unlimited supply of Earth's resources to make products and unlimited availability of space in landfills for the products at end-of-life.

Neither of those things is true—there's not an unlimited supply of resources, nor is there unlimited landfill space. The current system relies on finite resources and doesn't take into consideration the fact that they will one day run out.

Principles of C2C Design

The cradle-to-cradle design principles have evolved over time, but the foundational ideas remain the same: "The safe and potentially infinite circulation of materials and nutrients in cycles. All constituents are chemically harmless and recyclable," according to EPEA, Michael Braungart's company.

Cradle-to-cradle usually applies to product design, but it can also be used when thinking about or designing other systems, too. Materials and services can also be more sustainable using the cradle-to-cradle process.

Eliminating the concept of waste is central to C2C both philosophically and practically. Braungart and McDonough famously wrote that instead of thinking of waste as a problem to get rid of, it should be thought of differently, the way natural cycles do: "Waste equals food." With this as a foundational concept, products and materials can be designed to be used perpetually.

So, instead of waste, useful nutrients that can feed into a circular system are what's left at a product's end-of-life. Those nutrients can be one of two types: biological or technical. Importantly, constituents from biological cycles must stay within the biological cycle, and technical materials must stay within their cycle.

A future indoor-outdoor scene with modern furniture.

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Biological Cycle

Under C2C design, the biological cycle includes natural fibers that can make clothing or textiles for furniture, cleaning agents, packaging materials, and other materials which can be turned into compost (or another material that can be used to make a new product). For instance, a t-shirt that doesn't have any plastics in it could biodegrade in a compost heap, which would feed bacteria and plants when fully composted. It could also mean a glass container that is returned for refill or cardboard that can be recycled into new cardboard or composted.

Technical Cycle

Synthetic materials, consumer electronics, and plastics are separate from the biological cycle because they can't decompose. However, they can be designed in such a way that they can be optimized and serve as a material resource for their next life. Items with a mix of technical materials can be broken down and sorted into constituent parts. The idea isn't to just downcycle materials once, but to make them in such a way that their quality stays high and can be endlessly recycled.

A big challenge to the C2C system is that most products are made without this future cycling in mind, under the cradle-to-grave system, and so biological and technical materials are mixed together. Even relatively simple items can have this problem: Think about a blouse that is made from a mix of cotton and polyester textile, sewn with polyester thread, and with plastic buttons. You can't compost the shirt since the polyester and plastic won't biodegrade, and the cotton will be lost if you try to recycle it within a technical cycle. Mixing biological and technical constituents means that it can't be cycled in either category.

How Does C2C Fit Into a Circular Economy?

In practice, cradle-to-cradle is a radical rethink of the design process, since it encompasses the whole life cycle of a product, not just the use phase.

Cradle-to-cradle design is part of a circular economy, which is a larger concept. A circular economy is aimed at shaping the economic system in environmentally friendly ways by minimizing negative environmental impacts. That includes a larger set of issues and encompasses cradle-to-cradle design for products and services.

C2C Certification

An early criticism of the cradle-to-cradle project was that it wasn't easily accessible by those companies or organizations that wished to use it, since it was controlled by MBDC. In response, the non-profit Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute was formed in 2012. The organization is independent and runs a certification program that has specific parameters laid out on its website.

The Cradle-to-Cradle Certification looks at five categories: material health, material utilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

In order to qualify for certification, companies must ensure, through a third party, that they meet the current version of the cradle-to-cradle standard, which takes into account scores in each of the above categories. Each new version of the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Standard is open for public input and also involves various stakeholders, such as manufacturers, assessors, and others.

The fourth version of this standard went into effect on July 1, 2021. It includes more rigorous requirements that accelerate actions needed to address climate change, expanded requirements for water and soil health, and new additions to the chemicals on the organization's Restricted Substances List. In this way, the standard evolves over time with new information and goalposts.

Products that have been cradle-to-cradle certified run the gamut and there are now thousands of them. They include everything from apparel for adults and kids to textiles used on outdoor furniture; from carpeting and interior wall materials for offices to types of paint, furniture, cleaning supplies, personal care products including perfume, glass coatings, glues, and more.

C2C Certification Criteria

  • Material Health: The material health category helps to ensure products are made using chemicals that are as safe as possible for humans and the environment. The standard leads designers and product developers through a process of inventorying, assessing, and optimizing material chemistries. As a step towards full certification, manufacturers may also earn a separate Material Health Certificate for products that meet Cradle to Cradle Certified™ material health requirements.
  • Material Utilization: The material reutilization category aims to eliminate the concept of waste by helping to ensure products remain in perpetual cycles of use and reuse from one product cycle to the next.
  • Renewable Energy and Carbon Management: The renewable energy and carbon management category helps to ensure products are manufactured using renewable energy, in order to reduce or eliminate the impact of climate-changing greenhouse gases due to the manufacturing of the product.
  • Water Stewardship: The water stewardship category helps ensure water is recognized as a valuable resource, watersheds are protected, and clean water is available to people and all other organisms.
  • Social Fairness: The aim of this category is to design business operations that honor all people and natural systems affected by the manufacture of a product.