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Please throw this business card away...

As designers we are painfully aware of the impact our work can have on the environment and have been wrestling with the issue for a number of years. We know that the majority of the environmental impact of a product is determined during the connecting phase.

For a long time we thought that energy consumption was the main issue and made attempts to reduce the energy required to make, sustain and dispose of our designs. Our efforts were focused on designing products that lasted as long as possible, used recycled materials and were efficient in their energy use.

Since we established The Imagination Factory in 2015, we have been challenged to consider the concept of the circular economy and in particular a "cradle-to-cradle" approach to design.



Cradle to Cradle design relies on industrial processes that model nature. There's an emphasis on zero toxicity and making sure that all the materials employed can circulate in continuous cycles as biological or technical nutrients.

Technical nutrients mustn't lose their integrity or quality (no "down-cycling") and biological nutrients must be capable of being disposed of into the soil, providing food for small life forms without affecting the natural environment.

In order to achieve the certification issued by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute a design must meet the five criteria shown in the diagram above.

We like to put our money where our mouth is so when the time came for some new business cards we thought it would be easy to find a cradle-to-cradle solution. How wrong we were!

At the time (2016) there are no printers in the UK that offer this service. There's a plethora of eco business card providers but none that has a cradle-to-cradle certified product. So, when you bought those cards on planet-friendly recycled board they were probably printed with nasty toxic inks that will end up in the ecosystem when your prospective new business lead throws the card you gave them away.

On a side note (and at risk of sounding like we are ranting!) where is this mythical place called "Away"? We all talk about throwing things away as if it's not really a place. But it obviously is, even if we don't know where we would find it. And this is the mentality that the cradle-to-cradle approach challenges. Just doing a bit less bad to the planet is not good.

Fortunately, we came across a fantastic company called Cradle to Cradle Marketplace who are at the forefront of opening up access to CtoC certified products in the UK. They sourced business cards for us through their European network and have recently told us that they are working with a partner to set up CtoC printing in the UK.

It's tempting to be proud of this business oriented environmental achievement. But the reality is that it was a huge learning experience for us and one that won't be complete unless we apply the lessons to more complex design projects including mainstream consumer goods. Finding out how hard it was to get CtoC business cards has provided sober reflection on the effort we will need to put in to our designs when they require engineered materials to perform reliably.

In the meantime we are enjoying handing out our new cards and encouraging the recipients to put them back in the ground as soon as possible, although it's a rare moment these days when a business cards is exchanged with the use of multiple digital alternatives!

This article has been updated since the original version in February 2016.


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