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Herman Miller Mira office chair
Herman Miller's new Mira office chair is one of the first of its type to conform to the cradle-to-cradle design concept. All of its components can be recycled back into an equivalent chair. It is also designed with fewer parts for easy disassembly to aid recycling.

EnvironDesign 7

Report from sustainable design conference in Washington, D.C. April 30-May 2, 2003.

By Bill Moore

When 'green' architect William McDonough urged me to attend the EnvironDesign 7 conference, I wasn't entirely certain what I would find.

Granted there was a sustainable mobility track among the numerous workshops, most paneled by familiar figures from the EV World, EDTA's Kateria Callahan, E-Motion Mobility's John Wilson, Green Car Journal's Michael Coats and the Energy Department's Marci Rood. GM's Hy-Wire fuel cell concept vehicle was even on hand, stuck back in the corner of the "product demonstration" hall along with a Honda GX, Ford 150 CNG pickup, GEM NEV and a older model Toyota Prius.

The placement of the clean cars said a lot about the focus of the conference, which was much more about the issues related to sustainable product design than on transportation. But from my perspective, that was a good thing, especially given the recent setbacks in the EV industry, what with CARB opting to go down the unproven fuel cell trail, and Corbin Motors and AVS declaring bankruptcy at almost the same time.

It was time to get a different perspective on sustainable products and services, and there can be no better place to do that than a conference built around the concept of "Cradle-to-Cradle" product development pioneered by McDonough and his German partner, Michael Braungart, both of whom I had the opportunity to finally meet in person. In addition, I also either met or listened to presentations by many other kindred spirits including lecturer, scientist, author Edward O. Wilson, Senator John Kerry, interior designer Trudy Dujardin and Native America activist Winona LaDuke.

If you aren't familiar with McDonough and Braungart's Cradle-to-Cradle concept, be sure to listen to or read my interview with the former. It is truly an exciting concept, one which challenges the views of both conservative capitalists and liberal environmentalists. It is founded on the notion that intelligent product design can create abundance for everyone, everywhere without depleting the earth's physical resources, especially its fossil fuels.

Some of the first adapters of this technology are carpet mills, fabric makers and office equipment manufacturers. These include Shaw, Interface, BASF, Armstrong, Dupont, Zeftron, Herman Miller, Knoll, Hok, Carnegie, DesignTex and many others.

Shaw Carpet published an interesting little pamphlet especially for the conference that I want to quote from. It'll give you a good sense of what Cradle-to-Cradle means to a giant carpet maker.

"A Loopy Idea," one page begins. "Here's how you design a product that's Cradle to Cradle. All of its components must loop. This is different from recycling. If carpet gets recycled into car parts and those aren't recycled, there's no loop. That carpet is still heading for a landfill. And without a loop, it's not sustainable. Cradle to Cradle means the materials in a product -- all of them -- get used again, and again, and again. Forever. So, valuable resources never get buried in a landfill. They go back into the carpet. And the use of new materials is minimized."

At the end of the pamphlet, president Bob Shaw wrote the following Environmental Policy for his company.

Now lest you think this is just so much corporate 'green washing', consider that Shaw and Interface and other cradle-to-cradle practitioners have either developed or are in the process of developing carpets that do precisely what the concept implies.

Shaw wants its carpets back. It even has an 800, toll-free number on the back of the carpet to encourage its return. The reason is the nylon carpet fibers can be "unzipped" from their backing and reprocessed into new carpet fibers, as can the backing material. The result is an old, worn carpet comes out a brand new carpet, over and over and over again, endlessly. Fewer raw materials are used as old carpet becomes the "technical nutrient" for new carpet, much as leaf litter becomes the biological nutrient for new trees.

The same goes for the Herman Miller Collection Mira chair pictured above. It took a German design firm four years to come up with the optimum design, with input from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) on the materials to use. The chair, which I can attest is extremely comfortable, can be completely recycled into a brand new chair. Everything has been designed for reuse, over and over again. The aluminum base and frame can be melted and recast, as can all the plastic polymer parts that make up the seat, the back, the arm rests. And Herman Miller isn't the only office furniture maker that is incorporating Cradle-to-Cradle design in its product design. Both Knoll and Hok have also introduced similar sustainable chair designs.

I continually asked why manufacturers like BASF, Interface and Herman Miller are pursuing these goals. The answer I kept getting was not only was it the right thing to do, it was the smart thing to do. Architect Steve McDowell showed me a study his firm did for David and Lucille Packard Foundation which clearly demonstrated that building a sustainable technology building would, over a 100 year lifespan of the building, cost a fraction of its non-sustainable counterpart.

Shaw writes in its pamphlet, "Here's what we'd like you and every other CEO in the world to know: We expect to make more money as a company making sustainable products than we ever could by making products that are headed for the landfill.

"By re-using the materials in our products, we will lower our input costs. At the same time, we will make better and better products. And the combination of improved quality and environmental responsibility will keep our customers coming back for more.

"Cradle to Cradle," they conclude, "is a beautiful thing. Even to a bean counter."

Of course, getting to this ideal will take time and committment.

From conversations I had with representatives of Interface and BASF, we still have a long way to go. They admit that while their carpet is recyclable, the exact mechanisms for returning the carpet to be processed are still not firmly in place. The challenge for these companies is to economically encourage their customers to actually recycle the carpet, rather than just have it hauled to the landfill, along with non-sustainable versions.

I discussed this issue with the Hok representative, who agreed that it would be more likely that a corporate facilities manager would want to sell or auction off used office furniture in order to recoup some of their investment than turn it back over to Hok for reprocessing. Whether the next set of owners will know to call Hok, who will take the piece back at no cost, is simply too soon to know.

Everyone in the Cradle to Cradle movement hopes that returning worn, used products to the original manufacturer will become standard procedure. What products aren't suitable for reprocessing as technical nutrients, should be biological nutrients, meaning they will break down by biological processes and become food for the myriad minute communities that turn leaves, grass and dead organic matter into humus.

What is encouraging to know is that there are firms who are not just talking about sustainable product development, but are actually putting it into practice. Others are there to learn.

One young lady from Hasbro Toys was a bit nonplused when Dr. Michael Braungart showed a chromatograph of the scores of toxic chemicals found in a common Mattel Toys product. I asked her at breakfast the next morning if her company's products contained the same toxic soup of chemicals. Somewhat embarrassed, she thought they probably did. I would suspect that her bosses will hear this week about Braungart's chromatograph and hopefully decide to do what's both right and smart.

When the first EnvironDesign conference took place in the early 1990s, 70 people attended. This year there were easily a thousand, if not more. The movement is definitely growing, and that is a very, very good sign.

Times Article Viewed: 6611
Published: 04-May-2003

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