Biological and Technical
Like many people today the team at The Imagination Factory is sitting comfortably on Herman Miller Aeron chairs, as they work on a number of different design projects.
The Aeron chair is recognised for its ergonomic design and sleek styling but what is not so well known is that it was designed with sustainability in mind. It is up to 94% recyclable and has achieved the Silver level of Cradle-to-Cradle certification.
Cradle-to-Cradle is an approach to sustainability that encourages designers and manufacturers to reconsider the way things are made so that materials are kept as much as possible within one of two cycles: biological and technical.
Where did it all start?
It was popularised by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle and is based on taking clues from nature to inspire ways of making products that do no harm to the environment and at best actually benefit the ecosystems that surround us.
For a number of reasons The Imagination Factory has adopted Cradle-to-Cradle as its preferred method of designing sustainably.
It is rigorous, well-supported, avoids so-called green-washing and has been set up to encourage companies like ours to get started with all the right aspirations and make constant improvements towards a higher standard.
However, it's hard. Really hard! Ask us to design an efficient solar thermal pump and we are all over it. Ask us to observe complex human behaviour and break it down into tangible insights for products development, to improve their lives and we are champing at the bit.
But ask us to design a product that will achieve even the basic level of CtoC certification and we have to hold our hands up and admit that we have only just started the journey.
To give you an idea of how hard it is take a look at the superb Danish company Lego. The founder of Lego, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, had the motto "only the best is good enough". This drove Lego's commitment to use the most robust material for its bricks and to manufacture them to such a high quality that they always fit together. When you're making 60 billion pieces of plastic every year that is no mean feat.
So you have to sit up and take notice when a company like Lego announces that it is investing USD$ 150 million to develop a more sustainable plastic for its products. The announcement in 2015 surrounded the launch of the Lego Sustainable Materials Centre with 100 new employees. By 2030 Lego aims to make all its bricks from non-fossil fuel based materials. Currently bricks are made from a material called ABS which is something designers all over the world have come to love because of its properties; robust, great surface finishes and easily mouldable.
ABS is already recycled in large quantities (Lego recycled 70 million bricks in 2014). The problem is that ABS is easily contaminated during the recycling process so companies like Lego cannot use recyclate from any source as it would undermine their ability to maintain the quality of their product. This means that the technical cycle is broken unless they can figure out how to reclaim those billions of bricks all around the world.
So how about a biological material? Plastics from non-fossil fuel sources are available today. In theory, they are bio-degradable and therefore can stay in the biological cycle.
However, current materials (such as PLA) do not have the robustness properties for a product that needs longevity and they actually require more energy to manufacture than ABS. There is also concern over the impact of bio-plastics getting into the recycling stream.
Despite these challenges we remain committed to pursuing the ideal of a Cradle-to-Cradle approach to all our design work and encouraging the development of new materials to extend the options we have available to us.