Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Cradle to Cradle

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)

Cradle to Cradle (often written as C2C) is the certification managed by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII) – previously managed byMcDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).  William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Time magazine’s anointed “Heroes of the Environment”, are both internationally renowned in their fields.  Known for idealism, vision, and consulting for high-profile corporate clients like Ford Motor Company and Nike, McDonough and Braungart have envisioned “a new industrial revolution,” calling for “remaking the way we make things,” the subtitle of their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle. In that book and elsewhere, McDonough and Braungart disparage “cradle-to-grave” products that aren’t designed to be lasting parts of the manufacturing cycle and that poison the environment through pollution and disposal. MBDC’s Cradle to Cradle™ (often written as C2C) protocol envisions every resource used to make products as a safe nutrient in an endless cycle.[1]  On paper Cradle to Cradle is a dream:   Their goal is to have  “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power- economically,  equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”

Credit: MBDC

It is a brilliant concept – how can anybody not love it?   Well, this may be a case of something sorta like the Emperor’s new clothes – two highly esteemed people, with overreaching, altruistic goals, seducing us all with ideas we can fall in love with.   But, as Lloyd Alter explains in a Treehugger article this year ( click here to read the article )  after looking deeper, we find out that it might not be  quite as wonderfully “green” as we  thought.  MBDC says that “Consumers can rely on the C2C certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products” when in fact, at least at the Basic and Silver levels, you cannot.  According to Environmental Building News, one realizes that, at the lower levels of certification (Basic and Silver), Cradle to Cradle Certification isn’t really a product certification at all.[2]  And that creates a problem, because designers – even relatively sophisticated “green” designers – perceive that any level of C2C certification means a truly sustainable product.

So let’s back up a bit to understand why the Basic and Silver “certification” is not, as Environmental Building News claims, a product certification at all.    To be clear, C2C has not claimed to be a third party certification, because MBDC consults with manufacturers to help them gain a thorough understanding of their products (since many manufacturers depend on components from other manufacturers).  They then help the manufacturers make changes necessary to achieve certification –  so some perceive a bias.   In 2010, perhaps to avoid this perception, MBDC transferred the C2C system to the C2CPII, a California-based nonprofit, which will allow the separation of the certification body from the consultation body.

The C2C certification program works to express the C2C design philosophy through five categories.  A product’s final score is the lowest of its five individual scores in each of these five areas:

  1. Material Health  – i.e., chemicals contained in a product.  Materials chemistry is  MBDC’s greatest strength and, according to MBDC’s Jay Bolus, executive vice president for certification, “the heart and soul of the program”. To achieve any C2C certification requires that all ingredients be identified down to the 100 parts per million (ppm) or 0.01% level and assessed according to 19 human and environmental health criteria. MBDC uses these criteria to categorize chemicals as red, yellow, or green. Chemicals with incomplete environmental data are rated gray and are, according to Bolus, treated as if they were red. For a product to achieve any C2C certification other than Basic or Silver, it cannot contain any ingredients classified as red;  if it does the manufacturer must have a plan for eliminating them — unless red ingredients have no existing substitutes and the manufacturer contains those ingredients in a controlled, closed-loop technical cycle.[3]  Published C2C guidelines don’t detail what the certification requires of those strategies to eliminate the toxic elements. ”We will help them develop the strategy and develop some measurable milestones,” Bolus explained. “Let’s say it’s a textile—we might know of some dyes that don’t have hazardous characteristics.” MBDC would share that information and help the manufacturer reformulate its product.
  2. Material Reutilization:  this category concerns recycled or renewable materials.
  3. Renewable Energy Use  in manufacturing.
  4. Water Stewardship (water use in manufacturing) – both energy and water use standards focus on manufacturing and do not address the energy and water consumption that results from use of the product.  In addition, there is no assessment of air emissions or product longevity.
  5. Social Responsibility (corporate)

Based on ratings in each of these categories, a product can be certified by MBDC as C2C Basic, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

However, according to Environmental Building News (click here to read the full article ) , there are a number of areas where the concept and the reality of certification—at least at the levels that are being achieved today—don’t match.

  1. A C2C Basic or Silver certification, for example, doesn’t guarantee that a product is free of all red ingredients as mentioned above — the only “knockout” chemical at those levels is PVC, for example.  Although C2C identifies red ingredients at the Basic and Silver level, and companies are asked to develop plans to phase them out or optimize them, there is no C2C report card for consumers that details what a certified product does or does not include – because the list used is proprietary.  An example of what this means is exemplified by Owens Corning Propink fiberglass, which is currently certified C2C Silver.  One can wonder how a product  that some consider “the asbestos of the 21st  Century” and is a possible carcinogen can be awarded Cradle to Cradle Silver. But the fact is, they don’t list the ingredients and publish the spreadsheet or the formula for figuring out the nutrient calculations.  It’s considered proprietary.
  2. MBDC  certifies just the product,  without looking at how it is installed or used. For example, Hycrete  is an additive designed to waterproof concrete[4].  However, when used as intended it is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled by any established process. In practice, then, C2C’s certification of Hycrete as a biological nutrient means that “if you accidentally spill a five-gallon bucket into a local stream, it’s going to degrade and isn’t going to do any harm,” said Bolus.
  3. Also a concern to some industry peers is that C2C is not a true third-party certification program. Third-party certifications are respected by consumers in part because the certifier doesn’t have a financial relationship with manufacturers that could influence the program’s standards or the certification results. The standards community is moving toward a separation between the organizations which develop the standard from the ones which do the actual certification.  In contrast to this model,  MBDC developed the C2C standard and certifies products with it, while its primary business is consulting with manufacturers.

For many of the C2C criteria, Basic, Silver and Gold certifications are based on plans and intentions. “Platinum is where the rubber meets the road and they’re actually recovering product,” said Kirsten Ritchie, director of sustainable design for Gensler and an expert on product certification. Tom Lent, policy director of the nonprofit Healthy Building Network, said, “It is pretty important to understand that C2C certification is, at least before Platinum, more about [the manufacturer’s] process with MBDC than actual final accomplishments in the product.” Explaining MBDC’s rationale for the tiered certifications, McDonough said, “People need the opportunity to improve products. We’ve got to give everybody a chance to get into the game, and then we need to test them on their promises.”  As of today, no product of any kind has achieved Platinum.

These distinctions between levels, however, may not be readily apparent to consumers and design professionals, who see the C2C logo stamped on a product as a validation that it is “green”, and who believe they’re supporting the lofty ideals exemplified by the MBDC protocol, without realizing that those ideals are reflected only at the unattained Platinum level.

The editors of Environmental Building News have called for MBDC to fix this by continuing to refer to Gold and Platinum levels as product certifications; while the Basic and Silver levels should be referred to in language which “clearly conveys that such a product is being reviewed by the Cradle to Cradle program and that the company has committed to work with MBDC to make it better. That’s important and a huge step for a manufacturer—so it deserves to be recognized—but to call it “certification” is misleading.”[5]

As Lloyd Alter, in a Treehugger post in February, 2011, says:

” 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.”[6]

According to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute website,  as of June, 2011, the new Version 3 of the C2C product certification protocol has been completed and was about to be released to stakeholders for review.

[1] Atlee, Jennifer and Roberts, Tristan, “Cradle to Cradle Certification:  A Peek Inside MBDC’s Black Box”, Environmental Building News,

[3] Ibid.

3 thoughts on “Cradle to Cradle

  1. I think we can all agree that doing “less bad” simply isn’t going to get us where we need to go. Instead, the Cradle to Cradle® model is striving to bring about healthier and safer products by being “more good,” and while many products have gone down this path, our journey is really just beginning.

    I am personally working hard to bring the innovative C2C framework to scale around the world with an open and transparent third-party certification system. You mention a key aspect of this, which is the next version of product certification (version 3), that will be launching later this fall. At the same time, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute will be training consultants, assessors and auditors to both add third-party verification and expedite the certification process. These providers will be essential to guiding companies though the protocols and ensuring independently audited applications.

    As for safer products, we are striving to guide product manufacturers and designers in this direction. Our certification does, without question, consider the intended, and even the likely unintended use of a product when forming an evaluation. For example, a children’s toy is not created to be mouthed, but almost all toddlers and young kids inevitably do so. That is why our protocol evaluates all elements of a products against 23 human and environmental health criteria.

    The C2C framework is a continuum for constant improvement, assisted by a growing community, and I hope you will consider being a part of the movement.

  2. Angelica says:

    Hey there! This is my first visit to your blog!
    We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community
    in the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on.
    You have done a wonderful job!

    1. Thanks. What are you doing? We’re happy you’re there to share the information. Good luck.

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