Lewis Perkins by Elizabeth von Guttman and Rana Toofanian

The cradle to cradle approach to design provides a path to plenty.

You can have it all

Here, Lewis Perkins, Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute’s vice president of Textiles and Apparel explains how we can redesign the industrial manufacturing system in a way that feeds back productively and beneficially to the environment.

In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart published one of the most important environmental manifestos of all time, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The book seemed to offer an answer to the environmental and economic dilemma: do we need to stop making stuff in order to stop polluting the planet? Outlining a framework of design and production which seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but essentially waste-free, the Cradle to Cradle approach takes inspiration from nature. So, for example, when a tree falls, it isn’t thrown away but goes through a process of decomposition in which its component parts provide nutrients to the surrounding environment.


Learning from nature’s lesson, it proves possible to create, say a pair of shoes where the uppers are composed of infinitely recyclable polyesters and the soles from biodegradable natural rubber. You can also colour them with dyes which, when they come into contact with water, contribute helpful enzymes, instead of harm, to the wider environment. There is no finish line — you wear your old shoes in and your new shoes out — and there is no waste; these non-toxic materials can be used over and over again. So the answer to that dilemma is no. Whether it be a skyscraper or a skirt, we can continue to make and consume as much as we want just as long as they are produced in a manner which has no negative effects on the natural environment.

With the aim of bringing about a “new industrial revolution that turns the making of things into a positive force for society, the economy and the planet”, William McDonough and Michael Braungart set up the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute to advise brands, businesses and governments around the various ways in which they could improve their design and manufacturing processes. One of the ways they do so is by assessing products and factories in five categories: the health of the materials used, whether these materials can be re-used safely by nature or industry, whether these products were produced using renewable non-polluting energy, their impact on the water supply, and whether they were made in ways that benefit the lives of those that made them. The goal is not to simply reduce the human and environmental impact of a product, but instead to combine the “progressive reduction of ‘bad’ with the increase in ‘good’.”

Sometimes Humanity Really Produces the most amazing creations under the terms of constraint

You don’t seem to like to use the word ‘sustainable’ to describe the Cradle to Cradle approach to design and production. Well, do we really want to sustain what we’re doing right now? We’re not in a good place right now. I believe the modern environmental movement, or the current one for the last 40 years or so has a shaming element to it — you should feel guilty for that shower and that plane ride you took. You should use less. You should feel bad that you went shopping today. Or you should feel bad about the packaging that came with the shopping, and even though they did the packing, it’s still your fault. It’s almost damned if I do, damned if I don’t. And then the polar bears — I care about them, but what do they have to do with me?

What Cradle to Cradle says, is that if we’re producing in an endlessly renewable way, all the materials are vetted for material health and made with clean energy, clean water, good social practices, and all the materials get absorbed into the biological and technical nutrient systems, then you can produce as much as you want. It’s a regenerative, biomimetic concept that’s behind Cradle to Cradle. We like to talk about creating clothing and apparel — and products from all design disciplines and uses — where the chemicals used in their production are not only harmless, but they also have nutrients that are good for your health. And that all sounds a bit George Jetson, but that really is the path for a lot of what we’re doing.

The real belief we have at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is a design revolution that looks at the innovation of materials. And the reason we have to innovate is because we’re under constraints — and sometimes humanity really produces the most amazing creations under the terms of constraint. Our goal is to help companies create that continuous map to a destination, a platinum standard where you can drink the water coming out of manufacturing, or where the fibres in materials are endlessly renewable.

Do you think design and manufacturing processes that create no waste are something we’re going to see within our lifetimes? What we’ve seen with technology in our lifetime — and even in the last ten or 15 years — is insane. Imagine where our children or our children’s children are going to take the next 50 to 100 years of technology and how it integrates with humanity. And it’s a very similar situation to what we’re looking at around the revolution in materials. We can no longer be producing where you are boxing people into hazardous situations like what happened in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. I think the development of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition [a trade organisation representing more than a third of the clothing and footwear market that aims to reduce the environmental and ethical impact of their products] is very interesting because while the manufacturers and brands who have joined might not know where they’re going just yet, they’re on board. These are major brands [such as Nike, Levi’s and H&M] and design houses [for example, Gucci and Burberry] who are saying: ‘We know we have to be at the table. We know we have to be participating. We need to be using their internal indices to find out where we are.’ And then what Cradle to Cradle does, using a certification program which grades manufacturing according to its environmental and social impacts, is allow companies to benchmark where they are, so they can at least figure out where they’re going. Cradle to Cradle takes companies along this path.

A shirt shouldn’t necessarily become another product until it has been a shirt as long as it can possibly be a shirt


To promote sustainable consumption, I:CO provides the infrastructure for consumers to easily give back the clothes, shoes and accessories they purchased — valuable resources that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Customers can go to any I:CO retail partner such as H&M, Puma, The North Face and Foot Locker, and find a machine that collects discarded garments, weighs them and prints a voucher to be spent in store. Once your old clothes are collected, they’re reprocessed and repurposed into shiny new toys, clothes or insulating down in a cycle that uses only five to ten percent of the water used and CO2 emitted during conventional manufacturing. By rethinking, recycling and rewarding consumers for returning materials back into the natural cycle, I:CO hopes to avoid the rubbish heap.

So I take it you’re quite optimistic about the future? When I started my personal environmental journey in 2005, I had been working with an interactive marketing agency, and before that I was doing digital strategy consulting with a tech firm. I had just kind of burned out. I was like, ‘All I’m doing is increasing the shareholder value of our clients.’ When I went off to business school, I really wanted to help companies find their ‘soul’. But after about five or six years, I realised I was helping a lot of companies market and brand what they were doing, but there was no real peace or soul to it. So I went back and worked for an environmental non-profit. When I came into this conversation, it seemed that there were the environmentalists on one side and then the capitalists on the other, and there wasn’t really a lot in between. I then got hired by the president of Mohawk as he wanted somebody who had that kind of heart, but who also has a business degree and understands that side.

The evolution since 2005 has been pretty dramatic. We’ve gone from a place of having those two polarised views to merging into this conversation of conscious capitalism. So for me, optimism comes from the fact that they don’t have to be at odds anymore, and in fact, they’re not. You can do right, do well, make money and have impact. And we’re starting to see a lot more impact of the work that’s being done. What also makes me optimistic is the idea that if things are made in a way that is healthy and safe for both humanity and human endocrine and reproductive systems, for the planet’s endocrine and reproductive systems, then you can almost produce endlessly. If you’re running production on clean grids, paying a fare wage, treating women with human rights, ensuring the chemicals and chemistry you’re using are positive, then you really can continue to make as much as you want as long as it’s not designed to end up in some waste landfill.

Polar bears — I care about them, but what do they have to do with me?

Talking about capitalism — how do you define conscious consumerism? My advice for everybody would to be to engage, and have an intimate relationship with the products they have. It wasn’t really until I started recycling and composting that I started to think differently when I go into a store: ‘Do I really want to bring this home because that packaging is going to end up going…Can I compost it? Can I recycle it? Or is it going to go into my landfill bucket?’ Sometimes I’m the obnoxious guy who might return the packaging and leave it at the store and say, ‘No. This is yours. I didn’t buy the packaging. You figure that out.’ But I don’t think everybody’s going to do that. Most people are price-sensitive and time-sensitive.

Sometimes even organic brands don’t pay attention to their packaging. You know, in Organic Avenue, some of their bottles are glass and some are plastic. I used to live upstairs from one in SoHo, and I would buy glass bottles. I asked whether they wanted me to bring the bottles back when I was done, and they were like, ‘Yeah, if you want.’ No, no, no! Here’s how that conversation should go: ‘Yes. If you bring that back, we’ll knock ten percent off your next purchase.’ That’s what Puma are doing; you bring back a Puma product you have no use for anymore to the store and put it in the ‘Bring Me Back’ bin, and you get a percentage off your next purchase.

Currently, the burden — though it’s not necessarily a burden but a responsibility — is on the consumer to be more sustainable, and I’d like to see that shift.

You touched on the fact that most people don’t have the time to research ethically or environmentally responsible products, nor the money to buy them. How does Cradle to Cradle help? Well, it is a burden on the consumer to actively be sustainable today, there’s no doubt. That’s where we feel the Cradle to Cradle certification mark is a great way we can begin to educate. As the mark gets used on more consumer-facing packaging, there is an understanding that ‘Oh, so this says bronze, so I know that it looks at these five areas: material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness.’

So should the burden lie more heavily with brands and businesses? This is where we’re positioning Cradle to Cradle in the fashion industry. We almost need to be the intel inside — that business to business player. In order for brands and designers who, for example, want to use a better dye which has the Cradle to Cradle mark, they know what’s in it down to the parts per million because their supply chain has been assessed against a certain criteria. Currently, the burden — though it’s not necessarily a burden but a responsibility — is on the consumer to be more sustainable, and I’d like to see that shift.

Where does Cradle to Cradle fit within the debate around consumption — should we buy and make less stuff, should we just buy less, or take better care of what we already own? In the broader sense, if you’re making a product according to the Cradle to Cradle methodology, then you can make as much of it as you want, and you can consume as much as you want. Obviously, that’s not entirely true until we can get to a world where everything is being produced to run off clean energy and be recycled and collected under clean energy. And until we’re there, we’re going to use a lot of fossil fuels. So there’s a lifecycle burden for any product to just exist in the world today. In order to scale to what the future vision is, we have to look at the longevity of products. How long can you keep it? What is the pathway for where it’s going to go next? A shirt shouldn’t necessarily become another product until it has been a shirt as long as it can possibly be a shirt.

And what is the role of politics in this? Do you vote? I support politicians that are looking out for the planet. I hate to say it, but we kind of have thousands of years to get the other things right. The economy can crash or fall, but if we screw the planet and our ability for us to live on this planet that’s the end.

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