Imagine an old pair of shoes that grows into flowers, a carpet that cleans the air and clothing that becomes food for plants. These are the kinds of products being developed by Dutch designers inspired by the Cradle to Cradle concept.
I have spent a month in Holland interviewing businesses that are creating products that benefit the environment, improve people’s health and are profitable.
Developed by American architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle envisions an economy based on closed-loop cycles of materials. The concept gained widespread popularity in the Netherlands following a documentary in 2006.
The first meeting I had was with Erica Bol, co-founder of Rewrap, a company that makes Cradle to Cradle laptop covers. The sleeves are made from biodegradable wool from eco-sheep(!) and non-toxic dye with the minimum of materials. They are manufactured in a workplace that helps reintegrate disabled people into the workforce.
The next week I travelled to Venlo, where the city council has decided to make the whole region Cradle to Cradle. Previously young people were leaving Venlo in search of work. Now the city attracts the leading businesses in Cradle to Cradle and has become a hub for sustainable innovation.
Roy Vercoulen, the Managing Director of Venlo’s Cradle to Cradle Exposition Centre, explained that the city’s procurement criteria stimulates innovation by stating intentions – such as a building that produces oxygen, sequesters carbon, purifies water, improves the health of its occupants and promotes local biodiversity – whilst allowing as much room for creativity within that as possible.
If a company meets some of the procurement criteria they score thirty points, if it meets all of the criteria it scores seventy points, and up to a hundred per cent by coming up with solutions the city hadn’t even conceived of. The average score is eighty-three.
I met Richard van Dijk from the Dutch waste company Van Gansewinkel, whose corporate slogan roughly translates as ‘there’s no such thing as waste’. They realised some years ago that most of the materials being brought to them as waste can be turned into other products, which it turns out is very profitable. Now they advise manufacturers on how to design their products to be more easily made into new ones.
Lex Knobben, co-founder of laladoo, a baby clothing company, said he came across Cradle to Cradle when he was trying to find out if it was possible to buy non-toxic apparel. He told me even clothing made of organic cotton is often soaked in toxins during the dying process.
None of the high street brands he researched could guarantee that their clothing is one hundred per cent toxin free so now he is designing and selling onesies and bibs made from Cradle to Cradle materials.
When I asked Stef Kranendijk, whose carpet company Desso has boomed since adopting the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, what inspired him, he gives the same answer as almost everyone I ask. It was the documentary.
He is brimming with enthusiasm as he recalls watching it and thinking ‘this is fantastic. Fantastic! But I’m going to have to change my whole company!’ Which is exactly what he did. Cradle to Cradle is one of the key drivers of innovation at Desso, who have developed a carpet that helps asthma sufferers by collecting dust from the air and can be easily disassembled and made into new carpet.
The company Oat Shoes have deigned stylish trainers with a packet of seeds in the tongue. The idea is that when they are worn out you can bury them, water them and “watch wild flowers bloom out of your old kicks.”
What’s impressive is how these companies have made the environmental and social outcomes of their businesses a core part of their strategies and a driver of innovation. Instead of aiming to reduce their impact to the environment they are actively seeking to have a positive impact, and are making money in the process.
Cradle to Cradle has made me realise that we need to redesign everything and in order to do that we need a level of collaboration never seen before between chemists, designers, architects, waste companies and manufacturers.
While this is very ambitious, the fact that is can profitable gives me hope that businesses can be persuaded to it.
If you’re interested in finding out more, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a good place to start.