When I was younger, my grandma would bring me to the Hyde Creek Salmon Festival each fall. While I have many wonderful memories from the festival, what I remember most clearly is the stink of the rotting salmon. As a child, I was horrified to see the dead fish that lined the riverside, but that was before I understood how critical those smelly, gross salmon corpses are. As they decompose, their rich nutrients sink into the soil and are distributed throughout the forest to nourish the surrounding plants and animals. No part of the salmon is wasted, and at the end of its lifecycle it actually improves its environment.
This cannot be said for the majority of modern products. The items we use every day are often produced using harmful chemicals and begin polluting our environment before they even make it into stores. The burden of disposal is then placed on us, the consumer, and we are forced to wrestle with the confusion of trying to recycle mixed-material packaging and products (@ soft plastic packaging - wtf).
In the early 2000s, German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough came together to re-envision this process. They pioneered a concept that pushes manufacturers to rethink the status quo and create products that are truly zero waste – just like the salmon, but with less of a stench. The concept is called cradle-to-cradle.
Their first project was to create an environmentally friendly fabric for a furniture company called Steelcase. Steelcase’s previous system was producing toxic waste water and their fabric trimmings were even classified as hazardous waste. Braungart and McDonough went back to the drawing board and created a new fabric using exclusively non-harmful materials.
When manufacturing began, the inspectors who tested the effluent leaving the fabric mill thought their instruments had malfunctioned. The water leaving was now as clean as the water going in. The previously hazardous trimmings were now able to be donated to gardeners as mulch. If this story doesn’t get you hooked on the concept, I don’t know what will.
Following their success, they decided to create a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) certification process to inspire other businesses to emulate their achievement. Materials must be 100 percent recyclable or 100 percent compostable to qualify. Any toxic elements, emissions and effluents must also be eliminated.While these may sound difficult to achieve, over 600 products have now been certified, ranging from shampoo to building materials.
A C2C certified office chair by Steelcase
Studies have shown that businesses that obtain C2C certification reap reduced costs, improved product values, increased profit margins and new revenue streams1.
Approximately 10 percent of the certified products are in the apparel and textile industries. In fact, the first platinum certified product (the strictest level of certification) is a range of denim fabrics by Rajby Textiles2. Their fabric is 100% GOTS certified organic cotton, recyclable, biodegradable and generates no wastewater or material waste. Closer to home, the Vancouver-based Tentree brand has a line of cotton and cellulose based garments that are gold certified.
As I researched this topic, I became increasingly inspired by each story I came across of companies shifting their products to a circular economy model. The current linear system of take, make, waste doesn’t have to be the standard. We can rethink, redesign and rebuild our economy in a way that is not only better for the environment, but for workers and consumers as well.
Garments made with the platinum certified Rajby fabric2
A quote by climate justice writer Mary Helgar came to mind, “The thing about climate is that you can be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, or fall in love with the creativity of the solutions.” Cradle-to-cradle makes it easy to choose the latter.
1 The Optimistic Environmentalist by David R. Boyd