When “Cradle to Cradle” was published in 2002, it generated great hopes that it could lead to a more sustainable future. The launch of the C2C certification by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute provided companies with a clear framework on how to adopt the concept, making a paradigm shift seem even more likely.
Yet, even with more than 200 companies worldwide participating today in the C2C Certified Products Program, and with hundreds of product lines representing thousands of different products certified, C2C is still a niche market with little influence on the overall economy.
And so, almost a decade after C2C certifications became available, it’s still very much a promise that hasn’t been fulfilled.
Why? I assume there are many reasons, but the main one seems to be that most companies just don’t recognize the value in adopting the C2C certification. In order to address this issue, the C2C Products Innovation Institute commissioned Trucost, a leading global environmental data and insight company, “to develop an assessment framework with clearly deﬁned indicators to determine the effect of optimization on the business, environmental and social impact of products.”
The result is a 145-page report in which Trucost presents its analysis of 10 C2C-certified products from different companies (and industries), including Aveda, Desso, Ecover, PUMA, Shaw Industries, Steelcase and Van Houtum.
The analysis is based on the assessment framework Trucost developed, which looks at the ﬁve categories of C2C certification: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness. Them main question it tries to answer is:
“What are the actual and quantifiable impacts of pursuing the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program on business, the society and the environment?”
And the findings? In general they were quite encouraging, showing “a promising account of the positive impact and added value achieved by 10 companies during their pursuit of certification.”
I’d like to focus on the business benefits because I think these are the ones making most difference for companies, but before we do that let’s take a quick look at the environmental and social benefits of adopting C2C certification.
When it comes to environmental issues, the report identified significant benefits generated by “replacement of toxic and questionable ingredients by non-toxic and defined alternatives, conservation of product materials in continuous product cycles, increased renewable energy use and improved energy and water efficiency.”
Take for example Puma: The company developed a compostable sneaker, called Incycle, which holds C2C Basic certification. Compared to conventional Puma sneakers, Incycle has a smaller water footprint (51 percent reduction), uses less energy in manufacturing (48 percent) and has a smaller environmental impact (87 percent if all pairs are composted at end-of-use).
Looking at social benefits, the report found that these benefits are most strongly linked to improved transparency and commitment towards social goals. One example is Ecover’s purchasing department, which screens all of its suppliers on child labor, employee treatment and other social criteria, while encouraging suppliers to innovate with them. However, apparently most companies analyzed were socially-responsible even before adopting the certification. As the report notes: “For the majority of companies taking part in the research, social commitments were largely in place and little additional effort was required to meet Cradle to Cradle Certified standards.”
So far there are no surprises. It makes a lot of sense that the C2C certification, shifting companies from eco-efficiency to eco-effectiveness, generates products providing positive influence on society and the environment, and that the latter seems to have greater added value than the former. After all, four of the five C2C quality categories are more environmentally oriented (material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and water stewardship), and only one is more socially oriented (social fairness).
Yet, the more interesting question is: What about the business benefits of adopting the C2C certification? And even more importantly, how significant are they? The answer is a bit complex. As the analysis shows, C2C has various business benefits, including cost reduction, improved product value, innovation promotion, risk avoidance, growth in sales and increased profit. However, it looks like not all the benefits could be clearly connected to the C2C certification.
For example, while cost reductions are pretty easy to associate with C2C (annual water and energy savings of $2.5 million in the production of Ecovox carpet tile), when it comes to growth in sales, the report explains that “there are many factors affecting a company’s performance over time and the impact of certification would likely be only a part of larger fluctuations caused by other factors.”
My guestimation is that it would take more than that to convince more companies to join the C2C club, especially given one element that wasn’t included in the analysis: What is the value of the C2C certification for companies when you compare companies using the certification to those taking similar steps (such as reusing product materials or increasing resource efficiency) without having the certification?
It’s clear that C2C will continue to have a role in the development of a more circular economy. Yet, more evidence is required to show it has a significant value for companies, especially for their bottom lines, to convince many more companies to adopt it. Until then it will probably continue to be a promise for a better, sustainable world.
Image credit: The Cradle Products Innovation Institute
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.