Better product-design leads to sustainability

TURNING off your heating system, using less water and travelling less by car are not the best ways to support sustainability.

Roy VercoulenRoy Vercoulen (Source: Sme – Gabriel Kuchta)

To make that happen it is necessary to change your thinking and start producing products better, says Roy Vercoulen, a vice president and head of European operations for the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute in the Netherlands.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with him during the CEE CSR Summit held in Bratislava in late May about the Cradle to Cradle approach, which aims to design products and systems based on nature’s processes and viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy and safe metabolisms, as well as the principles of the circular economy.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the basic principles of Cradle to Cradle? Why is this system unique?

Roy Vercoulen (RV): Cradle to Cradle is basically about doing good. Making sure that if you are producing products, you are producing them in a way they have as many positive impacts as possible. To make that happen, Cradle to Cradle looks at nature to try to eliminate the concept of waste, to celebrate diversity, not only in a cultural, but also in economic forms. And we look very closely at energy. We think products should be produced with renewable energy only. 

The different elements are not new, but the holistic approach in which they are integrated and also the paradigm is new. When I was first making myself acquainted with sustainability, it was all about doing less bad. So you are turning on, turning off your heating system at home, using less water when you are showering, trying to not use the car as much. But all that stuff does not make any sense. It is like we all know we are moving in a wrong direction and the best solution we have is slowing down. But it is stupid because it will never get us to the right direction. It will just make sure that we will arrive at our end later. So I think Cradle to Cradle brings a new positivity to the dialogue about sustainability and also adds business sense to sustainability. It is about doing good and really making sure that we design products in our production systems in a way they are good and scalable. 

TSS: How can companies benefit from this scheme? 

RV: The first benefit is knowing about their product at a different level. Only when you know your product really well can you best understand your business. By knowing everything there is to know you can really unlock the economic value of your business as a whole. Also, if you work with Cradle to Cradle, you do not have to worry about changing laws because you will make the good decisions. It does not matter if next year you can use fewer toxins because you already phased your toxins out completely. That would give a huge head start to your competition. It also creates unique selling points. The design of reuse unlocks a lot of potential in regard to cost-savings as well.

TSS: Are there any requirements for implementing the concept?

RV: The most important thing is motivation. A company needs to be motivated to want to move in this direction. We do not have any weird or difficult requirements; it is all very logical and manageable within the company. It is more or less a guideline or roadmap to help you arrive at a better place. 

They [the companies] need to know what goes on in their product. They need to know exactly what their supplier is supplying to them. They need to start thinking about water issues at their production location but also in their supply chain. And they need to look at energy. Start to think about how they can use better energy sources, renewable energy, clean energy, and how they can make their system more efficient. And also look at the way that they are impacting human lives, because we see that people want to work for companies that have products certified. The people that are in the company are more proud of being part of that company. 

TSS: Could you, please, provide us with some examples of something outstanding the companies have made?

RV: There is one interesting example I can point out. It is company called Ecovative. They produce an alternative for styrofoam. A lot of chemistry in styrofoam is toxic. There is no reuse scenario, it is being created using oil. But they have a mushroom-based product, so it actually grows. Within a few hours they grow the packaging which is completely bio-degradable, fire-resistant, and the quality is better. And it is produced at the same cost. But there are many more. 

TSS: How do you assess the situation in Slovakia? Are there companies that are aware of this scheme or principle?

RV: I think there is a huge opportunity for Slovakia. At this point we do not really have any company from Slovakia that is a Cradle to Cradle example. But that creates even more opportunities because there is now opportunity for Slovak companies to become the first. 

TSS: Are companies aware of the circular economy system? Do they actually use it?

RV: There are lots of big companies that are involved in the circular economy. We work with these companies to create that system change. But it is something not one company can do. The circular economy is in a sense vaguer, because you can join a group of people talking about the circular economy. What is different is they are really implementing principles into the production process. We focus on the product, allowing companies to make a tangible difference, but we are not so much focusing on the collection systems. They are focused on these things. So we enforce and help each other a lot.

TSS: You said you are focusing on the product. What are other stages if companies want to use this circular economy principle?

RV: They need to think about collection. I produce this product. How can I make sure to get the product back at the end of the use time? But they also think about different sales models. In the traditional sense: they will sell you this product, but you are not really interested in the bottle or the can, just what is in it. So they think of ways to actually sell the product as a service. They still remain the owner of all materials, but they just start leasing the service. These are things in the circular economy you can think about. Also, they work not only with their own supply chains but also across the supply chains to look for advantages. Within our programme it is to focus on one supply chain at the time. It is up to the company producing the product to think about how to get back the product after the end of the use time; if they want to sell it as a service, if they want to lease it, or if they want to have a traditional model. 

TSS: How does the system of circular economy work in practice? Can you provide us with some examples?

RV: Let me give you an example of the washing machine. People that do not have high incomes often cannot buy the best washing machine, because it requires a lot of initial investment. So they end up buying the washing machine that costs less. Often that washing machine uses more energy and the lifetime of that washing machine is a few years less than that of the expensive washing machine. If you look at the total cost ownership associated with cheap washing machines and more expensive washing machines in terms of investment, you would find that the more expensive washing machine is actually cheaper. If you then work out a model where you sell the times you do laundry, you can arrive at the situation where people that cannot pay for a high-quality washing machine can still use the high-quality washing machine and enjoy all the benefits associated with it for a lower price. And because the company producing the washing machine remains the owner, they have different incentives because now they do not have to do service because service costs money. So they will just put in higher quality components, so you can get an even better product. They will also redesign their production system, so they can start taking back all products since they own them. They want to make sure they use them to the maximum extent. 

TSS: What sectors benefit from the concept the most?

RV: I think there are examples everywhere. For instance, if you use the washing machine example, it creates an all new market for services. It also makes sure that in Slovakia you will have a market for reuse and collection of those washing machines, for the maintenance of the washing machines, etc. So the economy becomes more local as a result. It localises the economy, so the labour positions are being created. 

TSS: And what about state administration?

RV: There are good examples in the Netherlands. If you look at the city of Venlo, they have really adopted the Cradle to Cradle principles and designed their city in line with them. And they are now actually saving money for the citizens because they designed their whole city in a smart way. They have healthier and safer working environment, and it also costs less. And they also have adopted procurement criteria, so they buy more sustainable products and use them. That is what the state administration can do as well: create incentives for companies to make the right choices. And another thing is the tax system. Right now we tax labour. Why not to tax resources? So if a company uses up the sources, we should tax them way more heavily than if they were just using and putting resources to use. 

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