Cradle to Cradle Explained: A Simple Visual Guide to Understanding How it Works and Why it Matters

The environmental movement has come quite a long ways since its activist roots in the 1960’s.  The ideas of conservation, sustainability, and green living are no longer considered the realm of ‘tree-hugging hippies’, but valid, highly relevant concepts in a society struggling to cope with its over reliance on fossil fuels and destructive environmental practices, which are having very real and obviously detrimental effects on our quality of life.  The question now has become: how fast can we embrace these environmental ideals and transform our society to avoid any type of large scale cataclysm?  This has led to the widespread recognition of the importance of these concepts and a new, re-invigorated environmental movement has formed that is asking everyone to do their part — be they soccer mom or Fortune 500 company.  While it is important for us to take collective responsibility for our actions, the fact of the matter is that business and industry account for over 90% of pollution and waste generated on the planet — and companies are feeling the pressure to adopt environmentally sound practices and products growing by the day.

Green Goes Mainstream

If you haven’t already noticed, ‘green’ products are IN.  While this is great and it’s spurring a whole new wave of enthusiasm for sustainable design and imaginative solutions to our worlds most pressing problems, its also become a marketing frenzy with companies constantly touting the ‘green’ features of their latest products — whether or not they have actually made any changes at all or are just ‘spinning’ how their polluting, wasteful product is presented.  This is known as ‘greenwashing’.  Greenwashing is a practice engaged in by companies wishing to get in on the thriving ‘green renaissance’ without actually doing anything green.  Greenwasher’s will do nothing to change their environmentally or socially harmful product or behavoir but still try to market it as eco-friendly, healthy, or in some way sustainable.  The biggest example of this deception that comes to mind involves food labelled as ‘natural’, which, while it sounds good to the consumer, is a totally unregulated term that essentially has zero meaning.  Companies who claim their products are natural can and may still use Genetically Modified ingredients, which last time I checked involved using a ‘gene gun’ to splice bacterial DNA fragments into otherwise healthy plants so they would have a ‘supernatural’ ability to resist extraordinary levels of synthetic, toxic pesticides and herbicides.  Yup, totally natural.

How Can We Tell What Products and Practices are Truly Green?

Greenwashing is a big problem and it relies heavily on an uneducated population — but how are we supposed to know if every claim on every product on the shelves is true?  We are literally inundated with 100’s of products on a daily basis all making some kind of claim as to their healthfulness, sustainability, or some other fantastic quality showing that they are indeed the best thing yes to happen to the environment.  The problem is that some of them are truly amazing, innovative products, while others are totally trying to greenwash you into believing they are doing something meaningful and responsible.  I received my degree in Environmental Studies and sometimes I even have trouble telling what’s what — so how can we expect the average consumer to know the difference between a truly green product and its greenwashing counterpart?  Simple: Certifications.

Understanding the Role of Certifications in Protecting the Consumer and the Planet

One of the best ways to help consumers instantly identify and recognize truly green products is through the use of certifications.  Certifications alert us through the use of an official logo or seal that a product has undergone testing, review, or monitoring at the hands of an independent organization to ensure that the claims being made about its healthfulness or sustainability are true.   Certification bodies provide a method to objectively evaluate products in a way that gives an accurate representation of their true eco-social merits.  In the food industry, the USDA and CCOF Organic seal’s are perhaps the best known of these types of certifications — but what about for household products, packaging, or furniture?  How do we evaluate the sustainability of these types of goods?

The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program

In that regard, perhaps the most respected, stringent worldwide organization for certification of everyday products is the Cradle to Cradlecm Products Innovation Institute.

The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ program provides a high level of transparency into a company’s affairs by allowing an independent, 3rd party organization to review product design, manufacturing facilities, and processes in order to provide feedback on areas that may need improvement or adjustment.  If a company meets or exceeds the institute’s standards, a certification is awarded according to varying levels of achievement along a continuum.

The  Cradle to Cradle Certified™ standard is based on the principles outlined by Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough in their seminal book ”Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”, which laid the framework for reassessing how we view a products life cycle.  According to C2CPII literature, a “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.”  Products (and the associated manufacturing processes) must meet or exceed a series of standards that assess applications in the following five areas: material health, material reutilization, energy (renewables usage, conservation), water stewardship, and social responsibility.

If you are an environmental scientist or industry engineer, that description is clear as day, but for the rest of us, it might leave you scratching your head a bit.  In order to help those non-technical individuals looking to better understand exactly what a Cradle to Cradlecm certification entails, we have put together the following info graphic to help explain the concept in a more accessible way.