Cradle to Cradle: Nature-Inspired Design

*Let me just provide a disclaimer that this blog is much longer than I had originally intended it to be, the well-engrained student in me somehow turned this into a research paper…


No company is sustainable… yet.  At least that is the philosophy of one of today’s most innovative and environmentally responsible companies: lean, green, cleaning machine, Method.  Ranked the 7th fastest growing private company in the US by Inc. 500 after just five years in operation, Method continues to push the envelope in terms of innovating REALLY sustainable products and processes.  In 2001, Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan founded this San Francisco based home-cleaning product company in an attempt to revolutionize the traditionally toxic industry.  And, well, that’s pretty much what they did.  Method products are already available in just about every major store around you – with shelf priority right next to those overly-enthusiastic scrubbing bubbles and Mr. Clean’s gleaming bald head.  Unlike many other mega-brands, however, the rampant success of Method’s new and growing business was created with sustainability at the absolute core of their methodology:

‘Because designing products with a past and future isn’t very easy, we have built our company around innovation. Innovation = change, because without innovation, there can be no sustainability. There are a lot of reasons, excuses, to not do something remarkable or green. “That has never been done before,” and “the technology doesn’t exist” are common excuses. Innovation means breaking through those barriers to find solutions. […] Solutions are what we do. And the way we achieve sustainability is by using one innovation to give us license for the next. That way, we move the ball down the field 5 yards at a time through successive innovations rather than throwing the Hail Mary pass that never gets caught. It is sustainability achieved through serial innovation’ (Lowry, 2010).

And the weird thing is, they aren’t even bragging about it (much) – Method products, though devoutly green, are not overtly advertised as “green” or “environmentally friendly,”  rather, products are very simply packaged in a variety of colorful, eye-catchingly shaped PET bottles that are in fact made from 100% post-consumer waste, but are not obviously labeled as so.  This deliberate strategy initially surprised me (an admitted natural-product snob), as I had seen the products before but never known about their sustainability cause.  Researching the Method story, however, made it clear that they wanted to seriously base their product sales on performance, and not their easily marketable green properties; exemplifying Method’s road-less-travelled strategy.  Their reasoning being that, while a good thing, people don’t always buy green products because they are green; first and foremost is the desire for a product that performs really well, it also helps if it looks good, but really seals the deal if it provides a great consumer experience – once people discover the additional benefits of buying green, it makes them feel like they made a good, smart choice for their home and the environment.  That’s the kind of thing that Method believes has built their customer loyalty.

While reading about the products is all well and good, being a very dedicated researcher, I needed to order some Method products just to see if they worked.  Even my inner clean-freak of a hippy was skeptical that bleach-based cleaners could be replaced by something (literally) derived from corn – but apparently, they can be!  The products worked perfectly (actually better than traditional ones), smelled great, and didn’t burn my eyes out either.  Looking deeper into the products, Method has seemingly found an alternative to every traditional cleaning product ingredient out there… So, why aren’t other cleaning product companies following suit?  Part of the reasoning is that it is very difficult for huge, well-established corporations to change their entire way of doing things – which presents a major opportunity for the smaller guys to start fresh, with a whole new outlook on product development.  Though it is great for them, this typifies one of the major hurdles for existing businesses to go green: incorporating the necessary changes into well-established practices.

Of course, this raises the question: what does it even mean to “go green?”  This question has plagued many environmental professionals for years, as there is a serious lack of agreed-upon standards or unified means of measuring a company’s “greenness.”  Tracing the Method methodology unveils a design principle that could be the sustainability solution we need to sweep through the industrial realm that also has, in all seriousness, the ability to change the world.

Method is just one of many evolved companies that employ the Cradle to Cradle® design framework.  At the heart of Cradle to Cradle is the idea that environmental problems are not a result of too many people or too much consumption, but a symptom of poorly designed products that are no longer suitable for the world we live in.  The name “Cradle to Cradle” is a rejection of the “Cradle to Grave” notion, which implies that a product’s life ends after the consumer throws it away.  Cradle to Cradle implies that a product should never meet its “grave,” and would instead be infinitely recyclable or utilized by industry and nature.  The introduction to Cradle to Cradle states: “This book is not a tree” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 5).  Indeed, the very book within which its ideas are contained is not a typical book – it is a version of a product we know and love, but radically redesigned to mimic the efficiency and prosperity of nature’s design.  The creators made the pages out of plastic resins, which not only provide the benefits of making it waterproof, durable, and attractive, but, unlike traditional books, is also infinitely recyclable within industrial cycles – rejecting the concept of waste entirely.  In creating and publishing their book, McDonough and Braungart exemplify just one small way of redesigning and rethinking one of our oldest and most well-established products, while simultaneously helping to change the destructive and ineffective ways in which industry functions.



There is a common view that business and technology are inherently opposed to environmental protection and sustainability.  Early 1900’s environmental thinker Aldo Leopold once wrote:

“When I submit these thoughts to a printing press, I am helping cut down the woods.  When I pour cream in my coffee, I am helping to drain marsh for cows to graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brazil.  When I go birding or hunting in my Ford, I am devastating an oil field, and re-electing an imperialist to get me rubber.  Nay more:  when I father more than two children I am creating an insatiable need for more printing presses, more cows, more coffee, more oil, to supply which more birds, more trees, and more flowers will either be killed, or… evicted from their several environments” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 47).

Leopold correctly conveyed the sentiment that simply living your life, even in an average way, is detrimental to the environment.  Still today, we maintain that industry and the environment are paradoxical realms; that doing something for one ultimately means sacrificing in the other – and under conventional wisdom, that is fairly true.  Placing extreme values on the environment may not allow for businesses to thrive or make profit, while placing too much value solely on business neglects the need to maintain resources or prevent pollution.  Clearly, extreme approaches in either direction are ineffective and costly in many detrimental ways (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 150).

Unfortunately, today global citizens face many harsh realities that I really don’t think we can afford to understate.  Firstly, that our planet is in ecological overshoot – a sinking ship, if you will.  Secondly, an unacceptable number of humans still live in abject poverty (<$1.25/day); many of which are also the people dually suffering from the worst of our pollution and resource exploitation and destruction.  Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we face enormous challenges in reducing the human impact in order to prevent (further) irreversible damage to the planet – I am unhappily aware of the fact that currently projected and agreed upon climate change will accelerate within my lifetime, and my potential children’s lifetime.  In fact, some reports are now concluding that temperatures are rising faster than previously projected.  And that’s the scary REALITY.  But what appears dauntingly complex and hopeless – I truly believe – can be addressed, and reversed, through the biggest drivers of change we possess – business and industry.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…              

Today, many companies are inching in the right direction: beginning to set sustainability goals through various reduction targets including greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, toxic materials or water usage – among the most commonly addressed.  Though helpful, these limited approaches are more accurately described as making industry “less bad” as opposed to actually “good” by McDonough and Braungart: “as long as modern industry is so destructive, attempting only to make it less bad is a fatally limited goal” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 65).  In many instances: “reduction […] does not halt depletion and destruction – it only slows them down, allowing them to take place in smaller increments over a longer period of time” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 54).  Reduction-only actions prove to be too limited in approach – generally focusing only on what has been identified by regulatory bodies as something that is noticeably toxic for people or the environment.  While we work on phasing out the obvious bad ingredients, the authors recognize that there are still thousands of un-researched materials with potentially undiscovered harmful effects: “The truth is, we are standing in the middle of an enormous marketplace filled with ingredients that are largely undefined: we know little about what they are made of, and how” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 169).  Working with the unknown has proven, time and time again, to be a destructive and ineffective method of creating products.

A classic example of this was in 1962 when Rachel Carson published her iconic book Silent Spring, unveiling the ecological devastation caused by the bio-accumulating pesticide DDT (banned in the U.S. in 1972, but still persistent in the environment and human bodies).  Carson questioned the logic of spreading such poorly-understood chemicals so widely throughout the environment where it could seriously affect human and ecological health.  Today, there is even more concern over the thousands of man-made chemicals entering our bodies through various channels.  One by one we can identify culprits: PVC, BPA, Phthalates, sulfates, halogens, BFRs… but this method proves to be incredible costly and frustrating to industries struggling to keep up with the seemingly never-ending additions.  Cradle to Cradle argues that regulations employ an ineffective one-size-fits-all solution, rather than encouraging unique problem solving – and while regulations do somewhat protect us from immediate negative effects, it ignores the deeper flaw: that “ultimately, a regulation is a signal of a design failure.” It is a signal that something is flawed; we are conceding to the idea that humans are incapable of creating non-harmful processes, so regulations are able to invite a certain amount of pollution from industries year after year (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 61).

Conventional recycling also has some major downfalls.  As it stands today, the majority of recycling processes involve forcing a material to take a downgraded form of something it was never intended to be made into – in other words “downcycled” into cheap, low-value items like speed bumps, trash cans, or park benches.  Though the material is bypassing the landfill (for now), it is essentially a resource loss to industry since it can no longer be returned to a high-quality state.  Even paper, since it has never been designed with recycling in mind, requires extensive chemical processes to make it suitable for reuse; and afterwards, is still a lower quality version of its former self: “the agenda to recycle has superseded other design considerations” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 59).  Even companies aiming for “zero net waste” or “zero emissions” are unknowingly ignoring the design issue: ‘As long as human beings are regarded as “bad,” zero is a good goal. But to be less bad is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the “be less bad” approach: a failure of the imagination. From our perspective, this is a depressing vision of our species’ role in the world. What about an entirely different model? What would it mean to be 100% good?’ (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 67)



Albert Einstein once observed: “if we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 165).

Traditional environmental thinking is often a world of have-nots; we need to stop consuming, stop producing, stop driving, stop growing, stop doing everything we love to do – fortunately, at the heart of Cradle to Cradle is a rejection of that notion, as it assumes humans are incapable of making any effective changes; rather, Cradle to Cradle is an encouragement to make cool, innovative, technologically advanced products as long as they employ a better design practice: “In this [traditional] world, less is more. We are proposing something different. We would like to see a true transformation of commerce in which design goes beyond using nature efficiently and instead creates products that nourish the respective spheres of nature and industry. Cradle-to-cradle design is the practice of this hope; it allows today’s companies to begin to bring forth products and systems that enrich the natural world and deliver more people more of what they want, need and love” (McDonough 2002).

McDonough and Braungart introduce the idea of Eco-effectiveness, which sees commerce as the engine of change, and honors its need to function quickly and productively.  However, it also recognizes that “if commerce shuns environmental, social, and cultural concerns, it will produce a large scale tragedy of the commons, destroying valuable natural and human resources for generations to come” (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 150).  Eco-effectiveness means working on the right products and services and systems – instead of making the wrong things less bad (eco-efficiency).   Eco-effectiveness goes beyond the now widely-accepted Triple Bottom Line concept (people, planet, profits) – a strategy that generally involves the “less bad” approach of reduction and minimization. While the concept is a good first step in identifying problems, it only succeeds in managing the negative effects of industry.  Cradle to Cradle’s eco-effectiveness seeks to create positive targets through design: “… when good design drives the business agenda, the path towards sustainability turns from end-of-pipe solutions to creating value with innovative product design […] a shift to the triple top line” (MBDC 2002).  Good design, rather than balancing the resulting negatives associated with economy, ecology and equity, can utilize the interplay of all three areas at the conception stage in order to revive business and maximize opportunities.  In order to help realize this vision, McDonough and Braungart developed a fractal tool to help scrutinize product design at the necessary levels: “As we plan a product or system, we move around the fractal inquiring how a new design can generate value in each category” (MBDC 2002).

MDBC 2002

For example, a question addressing the economy-economy section could be:  Are we going to make a profit? Moving to economy-equity a question could be:  Are employees earning a living wage?  And the equity-economy sector would view economics through the lens of equity, asking: Are men and women being paid equal wages?, etc.  Too often, we only consider economic health as a measure of success – which is why the triple top line necessarily weighs economic, social and ecological aspects equally at the beginning, allowing designers to create value in all three areas (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 154).  Designing products for true sustainability requires a realistically broad definition, not just focusing on a single factor like carbon footprint, percentage recycled, or safety: “triple top line thinkers, rather than trying to balance these values, discover opportunities in honoring the needs of all three.  In an infinitely interconnected world, they see the rich relationships rather than inherent conflicts.  Their goal: to maximize value in all areas of the triangle through intelligent design” (MBDC 2002).

There are many important aspects to Cradle to Cradle design, but in order to avoid reciting the entire book for you, three key design principles need to be addressed:

1. “Waste equals food:” It sounds odd when thinking about industrial cycles, but in nature this is literally true.  Eco-effectiveness is “built on the idea that nothing exceeds the effectiveness of the earth’s natural cycles: In nature, the abundant flow of energy and nutrients is useful, intelligent and safe” (McDonough, 2005).  And this is not just some tree-hugger idealism – nature’s infinitely complex and interconnected cycles ensure that no nutrient is wasted; no product or byproducts of its many processes are considered waste and everything goes on to become nourishment for something else.

One of our biggest environmental issues is the sheer volume of “waste” being produced by industry and consumers.  Rapid turnover of products in this “disposable” age have left us with a seemingly insurmountable pile of crap to deal with – though recycling has diverted a small chunk of our waste, over half of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) was still sent to landfills (132 million tons worth), with single-use items like containers and packaging (bottled beverages, food/product packaging) accounting for the largest portion of material – about 30% (US EPA, 2009).   Unfortunately, much of this material may never be recoverable to industrial cycles as high-grade material.  We can however, keep this in mind as we design the future’s products by aligning our thinking with nature’s design to prevent problematic waste entirely.

McDonough and Braungart conceptualize this by differentiating between technical and biological nutrients: biological being able to be safely returned to the ecosystem as a degradable nutrient, i.e. composted, while technical nutrients are valuable materials that are infinitely recyclable throughout industrial processes (designed by manufacturers to be retrieved and reused).  Products should have a past and a future: “If products are to maintain their value indefinitely and be truly sustainable, they must be designed with this intention in mind.  Designers should plan the potential uses of the products several life cycles into the future” (ESPDesign).

Material selection is key to this principle:  in order to ensure the safety and reliability of a product, the material’s ingredients must be carefully selected to either degrade safely into the ecosystem, or to be recovered as a technical nutrient to the industry.  A whole new world of “green chemistry” is indeed evolving to meet these needs.  Returning to the processes at Method, a partnership with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) led to the selection of ONLY safe, degradable, non-toxic ingredients for use in their products.  Ingredients were tested based on a wide array of safety criteria:  carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, endocrine disruption, teratogenicity, reproductive toxicity, acute/chronic toxicity, irritation to skin and membranes, aquatic toxicity, bioaccumulation, persistence/degradation and climactic relevance – among many others.  Though such testing seems impossibly rigorous, it is necessary to prevent any harm to humans or the environment.  As previously mentioned, the one-size-fits-all approach of regulation fails to recognize the uniqueness between industries, forcing companies to take costly measures to provide compliance information even when presence of a substance is unlikely or insignificant. The rigors of up-front material/ingredient selection can ensure a company’s compliance to applicable regulations (by elimination of hazardous ingredients altogether) and allow for greater control, measure and transparency of the supply chain.

2. Use Current Solar Income: This one is pretty basic.  The processes of the natural world are sustained by energy from the sun, and so should the processes of industry – free, renewable and clean.  Many companies, including Plantronics, have made significant investments in solar power with the tremendous benefits of reducing the use of polluting, non-renewable energy and reducing operating costs.

3. Celebrate Diversity:  ‘Nature’s diversity provides many models for human designs. When designers celebrate diversity, they tailor designs to maximize their positive effects on the particular niche in which they will be implemented. Engineers might profit from this principle by considering the cradle-to-cradle maxim, “all sustainability is local.” In other words, optimal sustainable design solutions draw information from and ultimately “fit” within local natural systems. They express an understanding of ecological relationships and enhance the local landscape where possible. They draw on local energy and material flows. They take into account both the distant effects of local actions and the local effects of distant actions. The point is this: Rather than offering the one-size-fits-all solutions of conventional engineering, designs that celebrate and support diversity and locality grow ever more effective and sustaining as they engage natural systems’ (McDonough 2006).



Make no mistake; going Cradle to Cradle would be a massive challenge, and a complicated one at that.  Sustainability measures may look very different across our various categories; different products may require different considerations – a sustainable mobile product may require very different changes and consideration than a gaming headset or a UC product, as they are all used differently and by different people in different regions.  But this is why cradle to cradle, eco-effective design is so useful and potentially prosperous – it allows designers to consider a much larger spectrum of problems and solutions – some of which may not even be sustainability-related, but we become open to them by considering spheres of influence that have not yet been addressed.  ‘Ask the questions: is it time to keep making what you are making? Or is it time to create a new niche? Innovation requires noticing signals outside the company itself: signals in the community, the environment, and the world at large. Be open to “feedforward,” not just feedback’ (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 184).

Luckily, Plantronics is no stranger to product innovation, positioning this company to accomplish more for sustainability than anyone else ever has in our particular industry.  As the industry leaders in quality, comfort, aesthetic design and sound performance, Plantronics stands to create the defining communication products of the future.   As time goes on however, environmental problems will only worsen and continue to drive consumer demands for more sustainable products and services.  Consequently, our designs must attempt to fulfill customers’ needs in an evolving technical and cultural context while providing solutions to the problems that often feel out of our control.  As more and more consumers realize that their choices have a major impact on the world, I think it is important to secure their view of Plantronics as an authentically responsible, sustainable and effective company.  If we can make the customer feel, by choosing our product, that they are making a responsible and smart choice, I think we do in fact stand to gain a great deal of loyalty.  It would also create meaning in areas never before explored – a product experience that satisfies the human desire to express individuality, as well the desire to do good and feel good about the things we buy and produce.

Our product designs conform to the many intricacies of the human body, and we are learning to conform to their behavior as well.  A more holistic design may be one that is also in tune with the natural world and the energy and material flows to which we are, in fact, a part of.  My idea of the new innovation: a product that understands the world as much as it understands its wearer.  So, that poses the question: what will be our greatest sound innovation?



You don’t have to take it from the hippy at heart, luckily there are many examples of rising sustainability innovators, some of them may surprise you…

WASTE: TerraCycle is working to create national recycling systems to collect and transform hard-to-recycle materials while also donating at least $0.02 to charity for every unit collected. They transform the “waste” into unique products for sale (available at Walmart and Whole Foods), making the non-recyclable upcyclable and diverting odd-ball materials out of landfills.  By September 2010, TerraCycle diverted over 50 million drink pouches alone by partnering with major companies like Capri Sun and Kraft as waste sponsors.

E-WASTE: Flipswap partners with major retailers to trade old cell phones for cash and finds them a new home- while planting trees for every product that has to be recycled.

TECHNICAL NUTRIENTS: IBM is just one of many companies that have already begun innovation in the technical nutrient realm, partnering with Stanford University to develop highly recyclable plastics for high-quality uses in healthcare and microelectronics – pretty incredible stuff! (New York Times, 2010).

BIOLOGICAL NUTRIENTS: Dell, Inc. is continuing to address both the waste and material issues associated with their products: building on the success of their 2009 bamboo packaging, they are now introducing a pilot program involving growing a Styrofoam-like product with the help of mushrooms – a cushioning biotechnology that is suitable for packaging large products, such as desktops and servers which were previously too heavy for the bamboo, and is completely degradable and renewable.  Now that is thinking out of the box (awful pun intended). 

ENERGY: Johnson & Johnson is one of the largest users of solar energy in the US – recently tripling its solar-energy capacity to 13 megawatts, the EPA also named them the seventh largest producers of renewable energy in the US – overall reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 23% between 1990 and 2010.

ENERGY: Microsoft and Accenture partner to advance energy-smart building software: “Through energy management, alarm management and fault detection and diagnosis, Microsoft expects to save more than $1 million per year in energy costs, with a payback time of less than 18 months.”

DIVERSITY IN FACILITIES:  Ford Motor Company treated their historic Rouge River manufacturing plant to a complete sustainability overhaul – In 1999, CEO Bill Ford was faced with a critical decision, the plant in need of major repair, he could either close or abandon the deteriorating plant as a brownfield site or stay and deal with the costly fixes. Bill deemed the site too important to the company’s history, and set out to reinvent the US’ once most celebrated industrial site. After much internal debate and skepticism, the site has undergone major, beneficial changes; including over ten acres of living roof, massive skylight installations, natural water treatment systems and began considering ways of implementing the first cradle to cradle car: the Model U.   

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