A chemist and former Greenpeace activist, Mr. Braungart is the coauthor, with architect William McDonough, of an unusual and influential book called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002). The book points out that nearly every mass-produced product, from chair fabrics to children’s toys to printer cartridges, contains trace elements of heavy metals and mutagenic materials. In aggregate, over time, these might well be hidden causes of cancer, infertility, and genetic damage (although it is admittedly difficult to know for certain). By redesigning such products from scratch, Mr. McDonough and Mr. Braungart argue, industrial society could transcend mere pollution prevention to eliminate waste altogether and to “generate nutritious effects on the environment.” Cars would produce not carbon dioxide gas, but carbon pellets, which could be sold to rubber manufacturers as raw materials; clothes could be made of edible fabric, recycled perhaps as animal feed. Nothing would be discarded; instead it would be broken down to its component materials and reused. Hence the title “cradle to cradle” (instead of the more conventional phrase, “cradle to grave”). To demonstrate how plausible this future could be, Mr. McDonough and Mr. Braungart produced their book on pages made from a resin-based material that contained no wood, emitted no toxins, and (unlike many materials) was infinitely recyclable; it could be reformed into pages, ground back into resin, and reformed again and again.
And yet, around the time Cradle to Cradle was published, Mr. Braungart was heard to say at a Society for Organizational Learning event: “We haven’t had any luck in making this happen.” In other words, the industrial world was not leaping to change fast enough. He thought SoL’s sustainability subgroup, led by two energetic management/environmental consultants named Sara Schley and Joe Laur, could help jump-start some progress with its corporate members. And indeed the idea proved popular with member companies, who felt their license to operate depended, more than ever before, on meeting and transcending environmental regulations. Automakers, for example, faced a pending European Union rule called the “End-of-Life Vehicle Directive,” with such targets as 85 percent automobile recyclability by weight by 2006, and 95 percent by 2015. (Already, if you count scrap metal, 75 percent of the material in most cars is recycled.) “The directives had us thinking,” recalls Visteon’s Matt Roman. “If we were to take back and recycle our components whenever a car was scrapped, what would that framework look like?”
Pressure also came from increased liabilities and regulations concerning product toxicity. Consider, for example, hexavalent chromium, which is routinely used in engine parts and fasteners. It’s inexpensive, it prevents corrosion, it resists wear, and it shines appealingly even when scratched. But when swallowed or inhaled, it is highly carcinogenic (the crime that triggers the lawsuit in Steven Soderbergh’s film Erin Brockovich is carelessness with hexavalent chromium). New European regulations have outlawed its use in automobiles beginning in 2006, but other manufacturers recognize the public-affairs benefit and general moral benefit of reducing this material. At Harley-Davidson, Hugh Vallely, the director of motorcycle product planning, raised the point simply: “If this material is so toxic, why are we using it?”
By mid-2003, there were four active groups of companies in the Materials Pooling Project, focusing respectively on replacing hexavalent chromium; sourcing lightweight corrugated cardboard; researching the environmental impact of different types of leather (as used in Nike shoes and Visteon seats); and managing polypropylene, a plastic resin often used in consumer packaging. There was a constant swirl of activity: weekly phone calls for each group and quarterly meetings of unusual enthusiasm. “We were on the leading edge of a field that was just starting to take off,” says Aveda’s vice president of package development, John Delfausse. “Not only did we really want to be there, but lightbulbs started turning on. ‘We could do this.’” They talked about rethinking product design in Braungartian fashion. They also found unexpected connections — Mr. Delfausse, for example, recalls scoring a potential cache of recycled polypropylene, to be used in lipstick caps, from an electronics supplier who shipped disk drives in plastic racks. “I’ve got tons of this stuff, and we would love to harvest it for you,” the supplier said.