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An Inside Look at Cradle to Cradle Certification

Sept. 23, 2015

Learn how this product label delves into sustainability.

Have you found that trying to purchase sustainable products could be a job in and of itself? When you really need to focus on energy and water conservation, it’s hard to find the motivation to assess a manufacturer’s green claims. After all, you’re not a toxicologist, chemist, or lab technician. What you really need is verification that a product was sourced and manufactured in a responsible way, has no exposure risks for occupants while in use, and has reclamation options that will save it from the landfill.

If you’ve been tasked with specifying building materials and furnishings that are green on multiple fronts, look for the Cradle to Cradle label. This multi-criteria program sets benchmarks for material safety and conservation throughout the manufacturing process, ensuring the way a product is made is just as environmentally friendly as the product itself.

Not Your Average Label
With a growing number of material declarations and environmental ratings, the purpose of Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Standard (C2C) is to cut through the noise and offer facility managers a straightforward assessment of a product’s green profile.

The program was inspired by the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. Their design philosophy led to a practice where “products are designed with safe ingredients that can be perpetually cycled and manufactured in ways that respect humans and the environment. This became the vision for our program,” explains Stacy Glass, Vice President for the Built Environment with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Rating Levels for Cradle to Cradle Certified

Products must meet benchmarks in five areas: safe chemistry, recyclability, energy efficiency, water conservation, and social fairness. Learn more about this rigorous process

More than a look at a product’s ingredients, this comprehensive analysis also examines best practices for energy and water stewardship during production as well as the company’s commitment to social equality. Products must meet benchmarks in each of the five categories to earn Bronze through Platinum achievement (see “Rating Levels” on pages 33 and 34).

“A key distinguisher of our label is that it is not a pass/fail assessment – products must demonstrate environmental responsibility in all of our key areas,” explains Jay Bolus, President of Certifications Systems at MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), the firm that created the standard. “Recertification is also required every two years, which compels manufacturers to continually optimize their product. This means there’s an expectation from the onset that a certified product will evolve over time.”

To ensure transparency and integrity, all documentation is submitted to a third party for verification.

“Unlike some eco-labels on the market, Cradle to Cradle Certified is not a self-declaration,” Glass clarifies. “Because we are a third-party program, product specifiers can feel confident that an offering has been thoroughly and professionally vetted.”

Green on Multiple Fronts
Whereas some declarations focus on a single quality – say recycled content or VOCs – Cradle to Cradle Certified looks at virtually every facet of a product’s creation. The focus is split between the product’s toxicology, recyclability and manufacturing processes.

“Rather than simply encourage transparency, our goal is to provide manufacturers with a framework that helps them design out negative lifecycle impacts,” says Glass.

To ensure safe chemistry, a manufacturer must first identify all of the ingredients in a product and make strides toward full elimination of any substances that are suspected or known to be harmful: “The material health category looks into the molecular level of a product and its toxicology,” Glass explains. “We want to have products with positive chemistry.”


Whereas some labels only have a cursory screen of hazardous substances, C2C includes risks, routes of exposure, or contextual assessments, notes Bolus.

“This benchmark is not only product chemistry but process chemistry – manufacturers can’t use anything during production that’s considered carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reproductively toxic for either humans or wildlife,” he adds. “When a product has reached Platinum level, no problematic substances are emitted by the product, its process chemistry, air emissions, or effluent discharge.”

In addition to high percentages of recycled or renewable content, Cradle to Cradle Certified also stipulates that products must be able to be recovered, repurposed, or composted. Reutilization ensures that items are diverted from the landfill and have a second life as a useful biological or industrial material.

Products are also pushed to employ responsible manufacturing practices. As every product consumes energy during manufacturing, the standard encourages companies to use renewable energy, purchase carbon offsets, and otherwise conserve their use of fossil fuels, says Glass. This focus is limited to the final manufacturing rather than transportation impacts.

Water quality is another facet of stewardship because of the environmental risks associated with effluent. “The water category is focused on quality rather than quantity. Industrial sites need to be responsible for how water is handled in their facilities and what kind of shape it’s in when it’s discharged,” explains Bolus.

Beyond a product’s creation, every company must demonstrate its commitment to social fairness. Under Cradle to Cradle, sustainability extends beyond the product to all of the people involved in its creation. “We want all stakeholders treated as partners,” Glass says.

Companies can demonstrate holistic practices throughout their supply chains by using audits such as B Corp, UN Global Compact Tool, or Fair Trade. These assessment look at everything from equitable wages and working conditions to charity giving and community engagement, Glass explains.

From these five areas, a Bronze through Platinum designation is awarded. Unlike other point-based systems, Cradle to Cradle Certified uses the score from the lowest category as the final certification level. This means that an item could be awarded Bronze even if it has satisfied Silver, Gold, or Platinum targets in all but one of the categories. To provide additional insight into the product’s green attributes, score cards are available that detail which requirements were achieved, notes Glass.

Supporting Green Building Operations
With over 2,000 certified products, Cradle to Cradle has many solutions that interface with building management, including cleaning supplies, flooring, furniture, washroom accessories, structural components, and interior finishes such as paints, ceilings, and wallcoverings.


Facility professionals should have a thorough understanding of their sustainability objectives in order to choose products that are in line with their needs, says Bolus. It would be too simplistic to select items based on only their final level as you’ll miss the reasons they were certified in the first place. For example, say your organization is more concerned about indoor air quality than the embodied energy a product carries – you will want to look at products that have high marks in the materials health category rather than in the energy category.

Taking this extra dive into the product’s background allows building owners to maximize how the item will contribute to their space, Glass adds. Studies in every sector have confirmed that healthy spaces lead to productive workers. Knowing that the right products can contribute to your bottom line arms you with a good argument to propose to senior leadership about any differences in first costs. You can also point out that having a product that can be easily reclaimed or recycled will save your organization from unnecessary waste fees, even if those avoided expenses are a decade in the future.

After certified products have found a home in your building, don’t forget to market these green selections, Bolus recommends. Tenants should be aware that the table in front of them, the carpet underfoot, or the ceiling tiles overhead have environmental and health benefits. Make it a point to educate occupants about how your company is using its purchasing power to decrease the impacts of items used on a daily basis. From the integrity of raw materials, environmental stewardship during manufacturing, and reuse options, Cradle to Cradle Certified products demonstrate that human and environmental health can coexist in a single offering.

Company Perspectives

There are over 2,000 Cradle to Cradle Certified products. Hear from a few companies about why they chose this ecolabel and how their manufacturing practices are supported by environmental stewardship.

Bentley Mills
Maya Henderson, Sustainability Manager

Transparency for product health is important to our customers. However, it can be difficult to effectively disclose material safety without violating agreements with our suppliers. Because C2C assesses a product’s chemical ingredients without listing them publically, this certification gives buyers insights about sustainability and product health while honoring the privacy concerns of vendors.

For the carpet industry, we excel at material reutilization because there are so many other applications for nylon 6,6. Our company offers a reclamation program that accepts carpet from any manufacturer. We also include post-consumer recycled content into our offerings as well as pre-consumer waste to minimize the use of virgin products.

Bentley is also mindful of how much energy is required to manufacture 1 square foot of carpet. Our carpet is produced in a LEED-EBOM Gold facility that is supported by a solar array and renewable energy credits, ensuring 100% of our energy is renewable. In addition to upgrading equipment, we have optimized our production schedules to increase efficiencies throughout the mill. We also made a pledge with the Better Plants Program in 2010 that committed us to a 25% energy intensity improvement over 10 years. We actually met our target in just four years and have set a new goal to achieve an additional 25% decrease.

Cradle to Cradle Certified makes it easier for facility managers to uncover how a product was created without having to become an expert in manufacturing practices or ingredient chemistry. C2C provides a better baseline for comparing products and their inherent properties, production practices, and reuse potential.

Construction Specialties
Howard Williams, Senior VP of Sustainability and Kendra Martz, Sustainability Coordinator

Williams: Our company was inspired by William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle. It brought us to a realization that although we had already implemented some of these practices, the Cradle to Cradle protocol gave us a structured and targeted process.

C2C gives us a people-centered context for our work. It’s really a philosophy that promotes sustainable product design and manufacturing behaviors. Without such a standard, one could make unsubstantiated green claims and even have their product made in a third-world country using child labor. However, with C2C’s third-party verification and audits, customers are assured the claims are real.

As many of our products are aluminum, coupled with our material recovery programs, we are able to include high percentages of recycled content. We also optimize energy use by purchasing carbon offsets and using efficient lighting and motion sensors.

Martz: Water is a big focus for us as well. We use no-irrigation landscaping, low-flow fixtures, and water metering. We have also secured compliance letters for our effluent discharge.

Facility professionals can have confidence that C2C is credible because the product has been assessed, weighed against the C2C Standard, and certified by a third party. It also makes selecting sustainable products easier – you don’t need to decide what makes sense because a toxicologist has done your homework for you.

Diane Martel, Vice President of Environmental Planning and Strategy, General Management

Our commitment is going above and beyond the certification itself as we strive to become a C2C company by 2020. We believe that how the Cradle to Cradle principles drive a circular economy is the future.

The goal of transparency is not to check a box but to make good products and optimize them so they are safe for the environment and users. To further enhance our material health, Tarkett is publishing environmental health disclosures that rate ingredients. We also launched an offering that is free of pigments, which can be problematic, and are investigating alternative color sources.

Our manufacturing sites currently use 20% renewable energy and some plants have incorporated biomass energy and recycled products such as jute pellets. We are also working on putting all of our facilities on closed-loop production water systems.

We never talk about end of life, but rather post-use. Our ReStart program reclaims samples, products and installation waste. We are also closing the loop through consolidation points and internal recycling lines.

Cradle2Cradle looks at products in a holistic way. For commercial spaces, it is important to have healthy people working in a healthy environment. Facility managers must closely consider the impact of the products used in their buildings. That means choosing products not only for their content, but also for the way they are made, reused, and recycled. If we follow this path, we will close the loop every time.

Mermet USA
Colin Blackford, Innovation Manager

Unlike other programs, the Cradle to Cradle standard looks at the big sustainability picture rather than individual parts. It carries more weight because gives insights into a company’s stewardship rather than just the product itself. Manufacturers must strive for continuous improvement and make positive changes to meet certification instead of simply documenting what they’re already doing.

Reutilization is a strong area for our company. One of our shades is made from recycled water bottles to cut down on virgin materials. Through our recovery program, used screens can be processed into a second generation of fibers. Efforts to salvage post-production materials have also led to a 70% decrease in our year-to-date, trash-to-landfill volume.

The main benefit of Cradle to Cradle to building owners is that it gives an apples-to-apple comparison between products. EPDs, for example, have a place but it’s still up to buyers to discern how environmentally friendly an offering is. C2C makes it clear how a product is an ecologically conscious choice.

Jennie Morton [email protected] is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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