Andrew Sibley of carpet manufacturers Desso, highlights how companies can benefit from closed-loop manufacturing
The pace of development over recent decades has seen unprecedented advances in technology, prosperity and consumption - and a world facing the challenges of climate change and resource depletion.
However, an influential new philosophy is helping to reshape how companies can adapt to the new environmental agenda and develop sustainable polices than can actually be good for business.
That philosophy was heralded in the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by the German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough. Published in 2002, it introduced the Cradle to Cradle concept, the central premise of which is that products should be conceived from the very start with intelligent design and the intention that they will eventually be recycled, as either 'technical' or 'biological' nutrients.
Cradle to Cradle models human industry on the natural world, in which materials are nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It's a philosophy that uses nature as a template for how we can redesign everything that we do - including the manufacturing industry - to be more eco-effective.
Cradle to Cradle sounds deceptively simple, but it actually turns conventional sustainability on its head, because convention is all about a language of negatives. The green convention talks about 'minimising' human impacts, 'zero footprints', 'banning' harmful substances or 'reducing' energy use.
Instead, Cradle to Cradle takes ethics out of the equation and paints an optimistic picture. It recognises that bad and polluting products are not unethical, they are just poorly designed. Conversely, good and non-polluting products are not ethical, they are simply well designed.
In the living environment, materials are constantly being transformed without losing their capacity as nutrients. However, rotten apples are not recycled back into new apples. Instead, they are transformed by chemical and other processes into nutrients for other organisms.
In nature, nothing is wasted; everything is reused. As in nature, so can we do the same, using innovative supply chain management to use materials from one industry to support others, eliminating the concept of waste because all waste becomes tomorrow's raw materials or nutrients.
A unified philosophy
Braungart and McDonough state that, when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems - for example, the effectiveness of nutrient recycling, or the abundance of the sun's energy - they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist.
It is no less than a manifesto for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design; a positive agenda that says that, if we work with nature, the manufacturing sector can be truly good. Time magazine has called it "a unified philosophy that - in demonstrable and practical ways - is changing the design of the world".
The attraction of Cradle to Cradle is that it's a philosophy that looks at the world with a new perspective; it doesn't romanticise nature or demonise factories or manufacturing processes. It's an approach which accepts that, in the modern world, we need to make things, and the goal should be to find ways that balance commercial activity with the natural world. In other words, it balances nature with human nature.
Simply, Cradle to Cradle makes planned obsolescence respectable. It encourages consumers to buy more products, but to do so from innovative companies that have policies in place to truly recycle old products, turning waste into new products or into nutrients.
There are obvious benefits for all of us. First, it makes good business sense because, without waste, companies save money from having to source valuable new resources, and second, with nutrients being constantly recycled, it diminishes the need to extract any more new materials. That really does change the design of the world.
It's nothing less than industrial re-evolution but, as Albert Einstein said, 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.
Andrew Sibley is regional sales and marketing director at carpets, carpet tiles and artificial grass manufacturer Desso