Designing Infinitely Useful Products with Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s Bridgett Luther

October 26, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so honored today to have our friend, Bridgett Luther, on with us at Green is Good. Welcome, Bridgett, to Green is Good. BRIDGETT LUTHER: Thank you so much. It’s great to here. It’s so fun to hear your voice again because I remember when we were working together when I was working for the Governor Schwarzenegger back at the Department of Conservation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And those were great times, and I’ll tell you what. You left the state of California in a much better place than you found it. We’re so thankful for that. You were inspirational to me as we were getting our company going, Electronic Recyclers International, so I thank you for your great work that you’ve done. Bridgett, now you are the President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. But before we get into talking about all the great work you do there and how the Institute came to be founded and what the real mission is over there, you’ve got such a fascinating bio and journey. What I want you to do is share with our listeners out there how you even came to this position. BRIDGETT LUTHER: So, when I was living back in North Carolina, and some of the folks listening may hear a little bit of southern in my accent, I lived in North Carolina for 25 years, I heard Bill McDonough talk, and I just thought there was so much clarity in the ideas around Cradle to Cradle, and I thought, “Well, if I ever had an opportunity to implement those, I would.” As luck would have it, we had a Republican governor that got elected, got recalled, and he was just looking for some good environmentalist to come work for him, and I put my name in the hat. For the young guys who are listening to this, young people around the world, Bridgett, how’d you get that great job? The first thing you have to do is you have to apply. So, I think working in Sacramento for the five years that I did, it was one of the most fun jobs that I’ve ever had. I really encourage folks to put your name in the hat. They’re always looking for amazing folks to come up there and serve a term with a new administration, and I would certainly encourage folks to do that. When I got to the Department of Conservation and I was appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, I had the recycling program as part of my responsibility, and I really wanted to figure out how to take them and look at recycling from the whole Cradle to Cradle perspective. What would it look like if all the stuff that we’re collecting actually came back and completed that cycle and never went into the landfill? So, that’s how it all started. I did end up bringing Mr. McDonough to Sacramento. He did meet with the governor, and the governor became very excited about these ideas. I also passed a lot of books around Cradle to Cradle and some DVDs of Bill’s speeches, and those helped inform the Green Chemistry Initiative. I became involved with that, and I also got involved in plastic in the ocean. It just was a fun time. But now I’m back in San Francisco, and I’m helping companies figure out what’s in their products, and how they can remake their products so that they’re cradle to cradle. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. That’s such great advice. Put your hat in the ring. I mean, people have to raise their hand if they really want to be the next Bridgett Luther. You’ve got to go forward, and you’ve got to do it by asserting yourself. So, thank you for that. Talk a little bit about the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. How did that come to being? Also for our listeners out there who are just new to this green revolution, this sustainability evolution, who is Bill McDonough? BRIDGETT LUTHER: Bill McDonough is an architect. He was the Dean of the School of Architecture in Virginia, and he met a German chemist named Michael Braungart. Bill was very concerned about the interiors of buildings and the materials that were going into them, so he was trying to build green buildings, but he didn’t have green materials. Then he met this chemist who said, “I want to invent new materials for the new century,” and Bill was like, “I need those materials.” And they’re like, “What if we were going to create materials for the future, what would they look like? And buildings of the future and communities of the future? Let’s envision that.” And they wrote a book called Cradle to Cradle. I would just encourage anyone to read that book because it’s so inspiring. The interesting thing about it, of course, is the book is made out of plastic, so we joke about reading the book in the bathtub or at the pool because it’s completely wet. Why would you make a book from a tree, something that’s so valuable, when you can make it from a polymer, which can be recycled over and over and over again? After Bill and Michael wrote the book, many companies read the book, and they said, “Wow, we would like to be able to implement what you talked about in the book,” and they started working with individual companies on redesigning their products with safe materials, redesigning their products so that they could actually be recycled and their materials would be reused, redesigning materials with clean water, using renewable energy and paying everybody who worked for their company a wage. The companies then got a certificate that said, “These are the things we’ve done,” and that certification program has now been transferred over to the nonprofit. Before, in order to get this certificate, you could only go and work with Bill and Michael. Now, anyone that wants to get their products certified can come to the Institute, learn how to do that, and come back and get the certificate from the nonprofit. So, we’re pretty excited about it. We’ve been working on putting everything in place legally, also training, getting all that done over the last year. We’re just getting ready to launch, and we’re going to be announcing our first Cradle to Cradle-certified product from the Institute in November. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so exciting. For our listeners out there, you’re really doing, once again, Bridgett, you’re on the front end of everything, and what so impresses me about you and the work that you choose to do. Explain to our listeners, actually, the term of art that’s becoming part of our vernacular now throughout the United States and the world. What does cradle to cradle really mean? BRIDGETT LUTHER: So, cradle to cradle just means it never goes into the landfill. It’s designed so it’s got use at the end of life, and if you think about the whole production that we’re in now, even when you do life cycle assessments, people are like, “What happens when I produce it? What happens when I manufacture it? What happens when you buy it, and then what happens when it goes into the landfill?” What we try to do at Cradle to Cradle is say, “Instead of thinking about the landfill, if this product was designed with a material so that it could be reused, maybe we’d have to tweak the design. We would want to make those materials just as valuable as possible because someone will take them.” You know all this from your own work, John. I mean, all the stuff you collect, it’s all valuable. Wouldn’t it be great if folks that actually work with you on the front end would say, “Hey, John, when I get finished with this, I’m going to make sure that there is a box that comes with it.” They go straight to your plant, and you wouldn’t have to pick it up. We know the post office is really interested in being that pick-up chain because they’re at everybody’s house every day anyway. They will give you the free box and send it back. So, I think there’s those kinds of opportunities for what you’re doing with Electronic Recycling. Or maybe it’s carpet. The carpet industry, there’s 3 billion pounds of carpet that are going into landfills every year, and yet that’s all really valuable. The carpet manufacturers in California are actually coming up with their own sort of how do we keep carpet out of the landfill in sort of a cradle to cradle process? Because they know they can take that carpet and turn it back into new carpet, so there’s no reason for the carpet to be going to the landfill, just like there’s no reason for the valuable materials in the electronics to be going to the landfill. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so fascinating. I’m so glad you’re doing this, and so glad you’re the President, because I just know it’s going to get so far and so forward so fast. So, now we know, you’re running this Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. For our listeners out there, Mike and I right now, if you’ve got your iPad or laptop, if you’re in front of your desktop, go to their great website, www.c2ccertified.org. Mike and I are on the site right now. Now you’ve mentioned Bill and you’ve mentioned Michael. We know you’re the President of it. You’ve got a heck of a group of founders, founders circle, advisors. You’re surrounded with quite a fascinating breadth of people. Do you want to share a little bit about some of the great people that are surrounding your great efforts? BRIDGETT LUTHER: Yes, there are a lot of people because they were people like me, who had read the book and were very inspired, met Bill McDonough or Michael Braungart, and said, “How do we get this thing to scale up?” and saw the Institute as being that path. So many people hear Bill or Michael, and they say, “Wow, this is amazing. It’s all very visionary. How do we get started?” So, the Institute is trying to fill that gap of the get started piece. Start with products. Are they designed so they can be recycled? Who’s picking them up at the end of life? Are the materials safe? Let’s get started on that because we’re going to have a lot of people living here, and they’re all going to want their own stuff. The last thing we need to do is having any of that go into the landfill. It all needs to be designed for reuse. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re so right. That’s so correct. MIKE BRADY: You know what’s really fascinating, Bridgett and John, as you mentioned, we’re on a very cool site here, Bridgett. Again it’s c2ccertified.org, but I’m doing a little deeper dive into it, and one of the things I find fascinating here is it says the Cradle to Cradle product certification framework first asks, “What is the given product’s function, food for natural systems or food for industry? In our world, everything is conceived of and designed to be food. Everything, every material, manufacturing process and emission, is food for one system of the other, then humanity will indeed be benefitting the environment.” I think that is absolutely a brilliant summation. BRIDGETT LUTHER: I know. It’s part of what is so important about Cradle to Cradle, is the identification of the two different cycles. So, we’re just really excited to be trying to teach people about that and trying to help companies identify what the opportunities are as they look at the whole infrastructure of their product and where is it going and what’s going to happen to it at the end of life, whether it’s going to be a nutrient for the soil, or is it going to be a nutrient for another piece of equipment. So, a chair doesn’t necessarily get made back into another chair, but maybe the parts of the chair, the polymers in the chair, the nylon in the chair, and of course Herman Miller is one of our clients and steel case, maybe all of those pieces become something that’s just as valuable. Maybe it gets turned into a laptop computer. You never know. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. It’s so true. Like all new verticals in this sustainability evolution, Bridgett, there seems to become, as it proves itself to be a great theory and great in practice also, then, as it matures, there seems to become a product certification or certification process to all new industries, just like the electronic waste recycling industry now has certifying bodies. You’ve created a cradle to cradle product certification protocol. Can you talk a little bit about what that really means and why did you guys go and create this protocol? BRIDGETT LUTHER: I think it was all just trying to give guidelines for companies and trying to figure out what is it that if we followed these guidelines would get us to the best products? So, when you go through this certification process, there are levels. Each level gets you a little farther down. If you get halfway there, you’re 50% renewably powered, and you know what your water stream is, and you know what’s in your product. If you get all the way to gold, then you have no bad materials, all safe and healthy materials, completely recycled in your product, so it’s a process. That’s one of the things that Bill and Michael talk about a lot. They talk about from the less bad to the more good. Instead of like most certifications, which are just a point in time, like you’re 25% recycled or powered with renewable power, the Cradle to Cradle certification process is a journey. It’s a total quality management, so as you go with your company through this process, you actually start to change the way you look at your product design. It could take years. In lots of cases, we’re finding that there is no replacement for a material that you’re using that is bad for people or the planet. And so one of the reasons we have innovation in our name is we want to create new materials. We want to create materials that are easier to recycle. We want to create materials that don’t have impacts on our air or our water. We made our name a little clunky, but we really wanted to keep innovation in there because we think as companies go through this process, they will see that a lot of what they’re making isn’t that safe or healthy, and so we need to come up with those new materials. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you’re pitching big brands, legacy brands, that really do want to go green and really want to do the right thing now but stay profitable also, what are the primary benefits that you pitch to them about being Cradle to Cradle certified? BRIDGETT LUTHER: Well, there’s a huge return on investment because you get out from under a lot of the regulatory problems that you’re having, and also there’s some brand value, especially in the building space. A report just came out from Shaw Carpets where they say 50% of our profit last year was our Cradle to Cradle certified products because within that whole architecture space, lots of different architects are specifying Cradle to Cradle certified products. Hospitals — there’s a company in Netherlands, and their wonderful staff, he’s got his whole company going cradle to cradle. He said even the downturn, I have realized significant profits, and I’m crediting Cradle to Cradle. So, I think there’s a lot of value in businesses, if they go through the certification process, they start to realize what the values are. Like anything, when you’re embarking on a journey, you’re not sure what’s going to happen here. But we’ve got some pretty good companies that have said this is really informed. Aveda, same thing. They’ve really pushed, they’ve really come up with new ways of making their products and they’re doing a lot on ingredients and safe and healthy things for getting out in front of the regulations that are coming from not only California, but also the federal government. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re on your website now. Again, for our listeners out there, it’s c2ccertified.org. We’re on the companies using the C2C methodology and certification thing here, and this is quite a great group of folks that have already signed up for us. I mean, Kiehl’s, Steel Case, United States Postal Service, Method Cleaning. I mean, you really already have a lot of great organizations and companies that have seen the huge benefit to becoming Cradle to Cradle certified. BRIDGETT LUTHER: Yes. That’s what we’re trying to do at the Institute. We’re trying to take all these lessons learned by all these companies involved, and then push those out to any other companies who want to get certified. It’s not like we just picked up the book yesterday and said, “Wow, what if we did this?” We’re actually building on the expertise and all of the knowledge that’s been built over the last 10 years since the book was published. Companies are starting to look for Cradle to Cradle solutions. MIKE BRADY: You know, it’s really cool, Bridgett, because somewhere else that I found in your website, while John and I are on it right now, you pose the question, “What if there was somebody that you really trusted that you could go to for the answers?” In other words, you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. If we look at the hourglass environmentally, the sand is moving inexorably towards the bottom, so if we can save a few steps and share that knowledge, which you really seem to be able to be a clearinghouse for that kind of knowledge, especially when it comes into posing the questions and suggesting some possible answers. That’s just absolutely brilliant. BRIDGETT LUTHER: Yes, so that’s what we’re trying to do. The other thing is it’s not going to be easy. I mean, getting down and figuring out what’s in your products is tough, and basically what we do in most of our manufacturing, most companies don’t control from top to bottom. They’re gathering parts from around the world in many cases and assembling them some place, and then sending them to us, the consumers. There’s so much power in it, so we’re just trying to make it easy. We’ve started that, and we’re going to start certification trainings probably next month, I hope. If folks want to just contact us, info@c2ccertified.org or admin@c2ccertified.org. We’re going to start populating those classes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Bridgett, I don’t know the answer to this, so I’d be fascinated for you to share. Who’s your competition even? Who do you compete again in terms of certifying bodies? BRIDGETT LUTHER: I don’t know. There’s no one else doing this. I mean, everyone else is doing a little bit of it. There are plenty of other certifications out there. There are over 800 green labels, but there’s nothing that’s the multi-attribute like this, that’s more about total quality management, and not just, as I said, just that spot in time. It’s also about redesign. It’s about infrastructure. It’s about creating a world where everything becomes very positive, and it’s such an uplifting message where people are like, “How are we going to live here when there’s 9 billion people? We better start thinking about redesigning things with materials and processes that keep things going around because we know we’re going to run out of many of the natural resources that we need.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you’ve just joined us right now, we’re so excited and honored to have our friend Bridgett Luther on with us. Bridgett is the President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute up in San Francisco. We’re talking about all the benefits if you’re a company out there to get certified by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Let’s talk a little bit on a macro level though, Bridgett. How does the framework that’s been created by the Cradle to Cradle Institute really help grow our green economy, which is a burning question right now, not only for the President, but for the citizens of this great country because we still have over 9% unemployment, and we really do have to jumpstart our economy. What’s your thoughts on a macro level? BRIDGETT LUTHER: Well, that’s what we’ve been talking about. There’s this incredible report that came out from the World Economic Forum on sustainable consumption and how we need to start rethinking our policies. We’ve got this program that we want to do on green economy think tank here in San Francisco, and we really want to think about what are the policies that need to be in place that need to happen that governments can say this is what we’re looking for? So, we can get the policies there. There are many tax incentives for all different types of industries. How do we put tax incentives to build recycling infrastructure? What’s the tax incentive for creating the materials? How can we incentivize keeping the materials that are valuable in the United States so they can create jobs? I always think about the plastic that sits on the dock in Long Beach. My heart would ache, and think, “There’s a lot of valuable material that’s just going across the ocean. Isn’t there some way we could keep that here so that we could create jobs?” JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re really right. That is so true. Let me ask you this, Bridgett. When we were off the air, you’re always four steps ahead in the chess game. That’s what’s so great about you. You’re way ahead of everybody else, and I’m sure that’s why Bill and Michael tapped on your shoulder to be the President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Talk a little bit about your thoughts with regards to see design and the e-waste industry, and where do you want to try to take that? BRIDGETT LUTHER: Well, I see this whole definition around technical nutrients because if companies would just design with the end in mind, and they would partner with electronics recycling in the very beginning, it would make it a lot more cost effective to get the materials back. They already had thought through, “Who’s my partner on the end of this?” I don’t necessarily want a chair back, but I design that chair for easy disassembly, whenever that chair ends up somewhere, I’ve got a bunch of cool materials that I can get back, and I can put those into pools so you have this material pooling. We need to start thinking, as you say, landfills need to be considered urban mines. Certainly, you can even call them resource recovery centers, where you’re actually getting pools of material back and creating marketplaces for those materials. I think there’s a lot of real interesting technical nutrient conversations we need to have that are a little broader than the whole extended producer responsibility because it’s really creating a product that has a whole life, and that’s what Cradle to Cradle is. From the beginning back to the beginning. The subtitle is remaking the way we make things, but in Chinese the subtitle is the circular economy. I think the Chinese are really leading the way. If you think about it, it’s really a great way to go. So, it’s all good times. I love being in California. I love working on this, and I’m sure we’re going to be partnering with you, John. That’s in our future as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I always look forward to it, and that’s why I’m so honored to have you on the show today, just to be able to platform all the great work you’re doing. Unfortunately, we’re down to the last minute or so. You’re always welcome back here, Bridgett, to continue the discussion and share the evolution. Speaking of evolution, since the world truly is flat and Tom Freeman was right, what does the future of the Institute look like in terms of expanding in the international role, and what’s happening around the world with regards to sustainability? BRIDGETT LUTHER: Right. We do have memorandum of understanding with China. We’re looking to set up a certification training center out in Shanghai. We’ve also got a nice partnership with the Israeli Standards Institute, and we have wonderful partners in the Netherlands. In a couple weeks we’re going to Brazil, and I think Taiwan is going to be a Cradle to Cradle country. It’s everywhere. I mean, the idea has so much power, and we’re sort of riding the wave of large communities of people looking for answers and seeing Cradle to Cradle as being a significant way to frame up a real positive agenda for the planet. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Bridgett, like I said, you are always welcome back on Green is Good any time to talk about all the great things you’re doing at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. For our listeners out there, to get more involved or to get your brand certified by Bridgett’s great organization, go to c2ccertified.org. Bridgett Luther, you are a visionary and sustainability leader, and truly living proof that green is good. BRIDGETT LUTHER: Thank you, John. Keep up the good work.