March 2010

Volume 19, Number 3

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Fixing the Perception Problem with Cradle to Cradle Certification

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As reported in our last issue of EBN and on BuildingGreen.com, Dow Styrofoam extruded polystyrene (XPS) has recently been Cradle to Cradle Certified by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) at the Silver level (see EBN Feb. 2010). At first blush, this was shocking. How could a product that contains the brominated flame retardant HBCD be held up on a pedestal as a green product by what is often thought of as the gold standard of product certifications? (See EBN Aug. 2009 for more on polystyrene and HBCD.)

But when one digs more deeply, one realizes that, at the lower levels of certification (Basic and Silver), Cradle to Cradle Certification isn’t really a product certification at all. With respect to chemical content, this recognition indicates that a manufacturer has disclosed to MBDC everything that’s in the product and has pledged to improve the product over time (see EBN Feb. 2007 for more on Cradle to Cradle Certification.) That’s all well and good, and we commend Dow for taking this impressive step with its products—indeed, we wish all companies would follow Dow’s lead.

Here’s the problem: for designers—even those at the leading edge of green building—any level of Cradle to Cradle Certification creates a perception that the certified product is green. We call on MBDC to fix this problem, and we offer the following suggestion for doing so: at the Gold and Platinum levels, continue to refer to Cradle to Cradle Certification as a product certification. At these levels, a product must pass muster with a robust set of filters ensuring that it is safe for humans and imparts minimal damage to the environment; designers can be fairly confident that such products are indeed green.

But at the Basic and Silver levels, MBDC should not refer to this level of review as “certification.” MBDC should come up with language that clearly conveys that such a product is being reviewed by the Cradle to Cradle program and that the company has committed to work with MBDC to make it better. That’s important and a huge step for a manufacturer—so it deserves to be recognized—but to call it “certification” is misleading.

MBDC has a unique role to play in the green building products world, and the process of working with manufacturers to help them improve their products is tremendous. But if the credibility of Cradle to Cradle Certification is compromised by creating the perception that a product is green when that’s not really the case, MBDC’s potential to continue driving the industry forward could be threatened.

– Alex Wilson

Follow Alex’s weekly Product of the Week blog at BuildingGreen.com. You can get to it from the homepage, or use www.BuildingGreen.com/ProductBlog. Provide your email address to get notices of new posts.

Comments (1)

1 Cradle to Cradle posted by Mundise Mortimer on 03/03/2010 at 11:55 am

I am glad to see this discussion. Products that are not in full scale production and/ or new to the market are shown as Cradle to Cradle certified. How can the cradle to cradle aspect can be certified when the product has not gone through its useful lifecycle and returned to the cradle? In addition, the full impact of the production process cannot be known until it is in full scale operation. Perhaps your article will help answer these questions. Thank you for raising this topic.

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March 1, 2010