“Cradle-to-cradle” design was introduced in 2002 by architect William McDonough and chemist Dr. Michael Braungart as a method for evaluating products that could be safely used without any harm to people or the environment, based on known data. The evaluation criteria for products include material properties, specifically toxicity and carcinogenicity, persistence and toxicity in the environment, and use of heavy metals; material reuse potential, either in recycling or composting; efficient or renewable energy use, including use of 100% solar income in manufacturing; water use, stormwater and wastewater discharge in manufacturing; and instituting strategies for social responsibility as evidenced by third-party assessments and certifications.
Based on a basic ecological concept that “waste is food” and the sound environmental precept that we should not be creating toxic materials that eventually wind up in the environment and in our bodies, the cradle-to-cradle idea seeks to get away from the idea that we can live in a throwaway society forever, creating thousands of new single-purpose chemicals with unknown health and environmental effects.
One of the early successes of this effort was creating a fabric for a chair manufacturer that was durable and attractive but that could be composted at the end of its useful life. Another product developed from this point of view is a commercial carpet system designed not only for sustainability in manufacturing and use, but also for recycling all of its components. Another large carpet and flooring manufacturer, Interface Inc., a multibillion-dollar (revenues) company, has been on a journey to sustainability since 1995 and has committed to have zero impact on the environment by 2020.
Leadership in regulating chemicals to reduce environmental and human impacts is generally found today in the European Union (EU), representing nearly 500 million citizens. At the beginning of 2007, a new regulation titled REACH (registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals) was adopted, requiring registration and selective evaluation of more than 30,000 existing chemical substances, as well as new ones. In terms of electronic wastes such as computers, two directives adopted in 2003 require manufacturers to dispose of consumers’ used electronic equipment free of charge and prohibit the export of hazardous waste to developing countries for disposal.
In their 2006 article “Raising Global Standards,” Henrik Selen and Stacy VanDeveer argued:
“In the 1970s and ’80s, the United States effectively set many global product standards for consumer and environmental protection. Today, Europe is playing this role, while US government and industry oppose the resulting standards in Europe and in international arenas. Critics of the European Union’s policies estimate costs in billions of dollars, while defenders argue that any increased costs incurred by manufacturers have previously been borne by consumers, the environment and waste contractors handling thousands of toxic substances.”