Cradle to Cradle (excerpt): a somewhat lengthy case study of an ‘eco-effective’ factory
In the early 1990s the two of us were asked by DesignTex, a division of Steelcase, to conceive and create a compostable upholstery fabric, working with the Swiss textile mill Röhner. We were asked to focus on creating an aesthetically unique fabric that was also environmentally intelligent. DesignTex first proposed that we consider cotton combined with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) fibers from recycled soda bottles. What could be better for the environment, they thought, than a product that combined a ‘natural’ material with a ‘recycled’ one? Such hybrid material had the additional apparent advantages of being readily available, market-tested, durable, and cheap.
But when we looked carefully at the potential long-term design legacy, we discovered some disturbing facts. First, as we have mentioned, upholstery abrades during normal use, and so our design had to allow for the possibility that particles might be inhaled or swallowed. PET is covered with synthetic dyes and chemicals and contains other questionable substances—not exactly what you want to breathe or eat. Furthermore, the fabric would not be able to continue after its useful life as either a technical or a biological nutrient. The PET (from the plastic bottles) would not go back to the soil safely, and the cotton would be yet another monstrous hybrid, adding junk to a landfill, and it might also be dangerous. This was not a product worth making.
We made clear to our client our intention to create a product that would enter either the biological or the technical metabolism, and the challenge crystallized for both of us. The team decided to design a fabric that would be safe enough to eat: it would not harm people who breathed it in, and it would not harm natural systems after its disposal. In fact, as a biological nutrient, it would nourish nature.
The textile mill that was chosen to produce the fabric was quite clean by accepted environmental standards, one of the best in Europe, yet it had an interestig dilemma. Although the mill’s director, Albin Kaelin, had been diligent about reducing levels of dangerous emissions, government regulators had recently defined the mill’s fabric trimmings as hazardous waste. The director had been told that he could no longer bury or burn these trimmings in hazardous-waste incinerators in Switzerland but had to export them to Spain for disposal. (Note the paradoxes here: the trimmings of a fabric are not to be buried or disposed of without expensive precaution, or must be exported ‘safely’ to another location, but the material itself can still be sold as safe for installation in an office or home.) We hoped for a different fate for our trimmings: to provide mulch for the local garden club, with the help of sun, water, and hungry micro-organisms.
The mill interviewed people living in wheelchairs and discovered that their most important needs in seating fabric were that it be strong and that it ‘breathe’. The team decided on a mixture of safe, pesticide-free plant and animal fibers for the fabric: wool, whyich provides insulation in winter and summer, and ramie, which wicks moisture away. Together these fibers would make for a strong and comfortable fabric. Then we began working on the most difficult aspect of the design: the finishes, dyes, and other process chemicals. Instead of filtering out mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, persistent toxins, and bioaccumulative substances at the end of the process, we would filter them out at the beginning. In fact, we would go beyond designing a fabric that would do no harm; we would design one that was nutritious.
Sixty chemical companies declined the invitation to join the project, uncomfortable at the idea of exposing their chemistry to the kind of scrutiny it would require. Finally one European company agreed to join. With its help, we eliminated from consideration almost eight thousand chemicals that are commonly used in the textile industry; we also eliminated the need for additives and corrective processes. Not using a given dye, for example, removed the need for additional toxic chemicals and prcesses to ensure ultraviolet-light stabilization (that is, colorfastness). Then we looked for ingredients that had positive qualities. We ended up selecting only thirty-eight of them, from which we created our entire fabric line. What might seem like an expensive and laborious research process turned out to solve multiple problems and to contribute to a higher-quality product that was ultimately more economical.
The fabric went into production. The factory director later told us that when regulatrs came on their rounds and tested the effluent (the water coming out of the factory), they thought their instruments were broken. They could not identify any pollutants, not even elements they knew were in the water when it came into the factory. To confirm that their testing equipment was actually in working order, they checked the influent from the town’s water mains. The equipment was fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as—or even cleaner than—the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufactuing process, this divident is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.
The process had additional positive side effects. Employees began to use, for recreation and additional work space, rooms that were previously reserved for hazardous-chemical storage. regulatory paperwork was eliminated. Workers stopped wearing the gloves and masks that had given them a thin veil of protection against workplace toxins. The mill’s products became so successful that it faced a new problem: financial sucess, just the kind of problem businesses want to have.
— McDonough & Braungart - Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, pp. 106-9.