A new perspective on nature and manufacturing

Jul 13 2011 by Andrew Sibley Print This Article

The green agenda of sustainability and respect for the environment is driving new commercial thinking in the development of better ways to make things.

For many companies, this means assessing manufacturing and distribution processes and then finding ways to minimise their impacts on the environment. This approach – termed eco-efficiency - is of course better than doing nothing. But, effectively, it's about adopting a "less bad" approach and believing it to be inherently ethical.

Desso is a large European manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass. Our starting point in the carpet industry was to recognise the scale of the environmental challenge. 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 600,000 tonnes of carpet is thrown out in the UK every year. One estimate suggests that, in the developed world, some two per cent 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.

Carpeting & eco-efficiency

This waste is an issue that is now of real concern across the carpet industry, with all the larger companies voluntarily addressing issues of sustainability. For some carpet manufacturers that has also meant reducing waste at source by using "natural" materials such as wool or sustainable plant fibres – most commonly, sisal, cotton, seagrass, jute, or coconut coir. For others, it's been about using, for example, open-cell polyurethane foam in their carpet backing, a post-industrial waste from the automotive industry, an innovative way of reutilizing someone else's rubbish.

Eco-efficiency has been an enormous step forward in galvanising companies to think and behave in new ways. It has brought significant environmental advances – often from companies thinking laterally, and working collaboratively.

For example, in the flooring sector, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic beverage bottles are now being recycled in their millions to make polyester carpet fibers. Plastic bottles are also being sold to make carpet backing – in a mix of materials that also includes renewable soyabean and celceram, a refined material recovered from coal-fired power stations.

For Desso, as with a growing number of manufacturing companies, it's been about an alternative approach, going beyond eco-efficiency to adopt a new theory of eco-effectiveness, which looks at manufacturing industry as regenerative rather than depletive, and designing goods that celebrate interdependence with other living systems. From an industrial design perspective this means making products that work within a circular rather than a linear economy.

Cradle to Cradle

That philosophy is called Cradle to Cradle. In 2002, German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough heralded it with their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Its central premise is that products should be conceived from the very start with intelligent design and the intention that they would eventually be recycled, as either 'technical' or 'biological' nutrients. Time Magazine has called it "a unified philosophy that - in demonstrable and practical ways - is changing the design of the world."

It models human industry on the natural world, in which materials are nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It's a philosophy that uses nature as a metaphor for how we can redesign everything that we do – including manufacturing industry – to be more eco-effective.

It sounds deceptively simple, but it's actually turning conventional sustainability on its head, because convention is all about a language of negatives. The green convention talks about "minimising" human impacts, "zero footprints," "banning" harmful substances or "reducing" energy use.

Instead, Cradle to Cradle takes ethics out of the equation. It simply recognises that bad and polluting products are not unethical, they are just poorly designed. Conversely, good and non-polluting products are not ethical, they are simply well designed.

In the living environment, materials are constantly being transformed without losing their capacity as nutrients; however, rotten apples are not recycled back into new apples: instead, they are transformed by chemical and other processes into nutrients for other organisms.

In nature, nothing is wasted; everything is reused. As in nature, so can we do the same, using innovative supply chain management to use materials from one industry to support others, eliminating the concept of waste because all waste becomes tomorrow's raw materials or nutrients.

A unified philosophy

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.

In 2007, Desso entered into partnership with the Hamburg-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency, 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. Certification is available at several levels: basic, silver, gold, and platinum, with more stringent requirements at each stage. We intend that all our products will be designed and produced according to Cradle to Cradle design principles by 2020.

Our commitment to that process is absolute. For example, this year we introduced a carpet backing that can be entirely recycled back into carpet backing. So significant is this development that Desso is the only carpet manufacturer in the world to have achieved Cradle to Cradle Silver Certification for an entire carpet tile product.

We also have Take Back programmes in place to ensure that products can be recycled according to Cradle to Cradle principles, with carpet being recycled using an innovative separation process. This makes it possible to separate the yarn from the backing, with the yarn being recycled into new yarn, and the backing becoming new carpet backing.

Nature & human nature

We were first attracted to Cradle to Cradle because it's a philosophy that looks at the world with a new perspective; it doesn't romanticise nature or demonise factories or manufacturing processes. It's an approach that accepts that, in the modern world, we need to make things – and the goal should be to find ways that balance commercial activity with the natural world. In other words, it balances nature with human nature.

Simply, Cradle to Cradle makes planned obsolescence respectable. It encourages consumers to buy more products, but to do so from innovative companies that have policies in place to recycle old products, turning waste into new products or into nutrients. After all, the alternative is for all of us to buy less. But if we do, that harms industry, job creation and, ultimately, us. And does anybody want to use the same TV, car or mobile phone for twenty years at a time?

Cradle to Cradle allows us to feel good again about being consumers, but to also take responsibility about whom we buy new goods from.

It's therefore a business approach that embraces the consumer, not only to develop carpet ranges that are creative, hard-wearing and fit for purpose, but a strategy that says that, in everything we do, we should encourage health, wellness and wellbeing and place real priority on people and the environment.

The challenges facing the global manufacturing sector are immense as we all grapple with the new environmental agendas of the 21st century. But what we're seeing is a strategic change of attitude: that industrial development must be balanced by sustainability and that the two concepts need not be incompatible.

The opportunity 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. With Cradle to Cradle, we believe that we have adopted a philosophy that does just that and which may yet help to change the design of the world.

About The Author

Andrew Sibley
Andrew Sibley

Andrew Sibley, a senior executive at Desso, a Netherlands-based manufacturer of carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass with a presence in over 100 countries.