An industrial revolution
by Nancy Jehmlich | Jan 5, 2009
Reinhard Backhausen

The ecological principle with the extremely unfortunate name "Cradle to Cradle" is becoming increasingly important. The name, which originates from the saying "cradle to grave", is a reference to the evaluation of a product's lifecycle, which is in fact more linear than cyclical in development. Cradle to Cradle, on the other hand, means manufacturing 100% recyclable products and materials. Here, we need to differentiate between materials, which are consumed, i.e. follow a natural cycle and those, which are used. The second of these material categories, consumer items, remain the property of the manufacturer, who uses return of goods and recycling to maintain the technical cycle.

Michael Braungart founded EPEA, Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, who develop, implement and manage the Cradle to Cradle concept, over twenty years ago. A special certificate documents the use of environmentally sound, non-toxic, recyclable materials, solar or other renewable forms of energy, the responsible use of water and a socially responsible company policy. The certificate is awarded for one year. Companies using or intending to use the Cradle to Cradle model call on their suppliers to vouch for the environmental quality of their materials.

Backhausen, an Austrian company, have been awarded a Gold CFC certificate for their Returnity fabric. With Returnity, Backhausen have succeeded in combining the advantages of flame-retardant Trevira CS fibres with those of a Cradle to Cradle conform product. Trevira CS products are particularly suitable for the contract furnishing sector, hotels and concert halls for example, but can naturally be used in the private sector too.

Mr. Backhausen, you recently presented your Returnity fabric. What role does sustainability play in this product?
Reinhard Backhausen: we are a traditional company and have been in existence for one hundred and sixty years. We didn't pay much attention to environmental issues until two years ago but we have developed a basic understanding of it and are now committed advocates of Returnity and Cradle to Cradle. The product has our total support and we will be converting our entire product range to Returnity in 2009, which demonstrates just how seriously we take this subject.

What happens to the fabric when it comes back to you?
Backhausen: when the fabric is returned to us (and we provide incentives, in the form of discounts on future purchases, to ensure it is returned to us), we guarantee it is recycled professionally in compliance with Cradle to Cradle guidelines. There are a variety of different ways to do this. As fabric manufacturers, we naturally don't recycle ourselves. We have an agreement with Trevira that either they recycle the fabric or we give it to other recycling companies, which means that it isn't necessarily used to make new fabric. It could, for example, be used to make furniture but, whatever the use, the fabric is repolymerised or in other words, turned into granules, which can be used in the manufacture of any type of product, provided it complies with the Cradle to Cradle guidelines.

The reason why you developed Returnity was to eliminate environmentally harmful substances. What are these environmentally harmful substances?
Backhausen: all products contain chemical substances, which are not entirely harmless. I don't want to go into details now, because it would be too technical but EPEA [the international Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency] has twenty scientists in its ranks, who know precisely which substances should not be used if certification is to be obtained. We rely on these scientists and now hold a gold Cradle to Cradle certificate.

Is extraction environmentally harmful in itself?
Backhausen: no, definitely not. We should try not to use chemical products, which we know contain certain harmful substances and endeavour to find alternative materials. Ultimately this should improve rather than adversely affect the properties of the product. Naturally it's always about a gradual transition and it's the responsibility of research to follow the right course.

What do you find convincing about the Cradle to Cradle approach?
Backhausen: for me, Cradle to Cradle is a philosophy for life, almost an industry revolution. There are over six billion people on earth and this figure is set to rise to nine billion in 2025. This begs the question as to how to find all the resources these people will need. We already know that the resources currently available will be insufficient, so the human race must consider how to protect existing resources and avoid waste through recycling and the technical and natural cycle and we must start now. Actually we should have started decades ago. Now we have to create the basis to ensure that the next generation are not faced with near insoluble problems. So, for me, Cradle to Cradle is nothing short of obligatory.

Why do you think that initial attempts to manage sustainability have come so late?
Backhausen: I have often asked myself the same question. Why was nothing done for decades? Well, that's not quite accurate but little was done. One shouldn't forget that we had two world wars, which called for an incredible amount of catching up. We got the chance to experience and feel luxury for the first time. A visible sign of this was almost infinite growth but now, in some parts of the world, a degree of saturation is noticeable. What is important at the moment is to take a step back and try to think about resources. I hope that the right steps will be taken as far as the environment is concerned. That is the most important thing of all and should be the absolute priority.

What could drive this process forward? Who must set the wheels in motion?
Backhausen: In principle, it's the responsibility of the politicians. They are the only ones, who can really make a long-term impact. It took some very important people applying pressure to the politicians to finally make them aware that something must happen now. Politicians are the only ones who can set the wheels in motion but everyone must do their bit.

To what extent is your production process non-raw-material-dependent?
Backhausen: Trevira CS is a 100% synthetic material. It is a flame-retardant basic substance, a modified polyester. We buy in our Trevira CS fibres, then dye and treat them. So, from this perspective, we don't have any natural materials but a technical product and we are naturally dependant on our suppliers, in this case Trevira. However, because Trevira is a global player and a superior brand, which operates very successfully all over the world, we have confidence in our partnership, just as we have in our collaboration with EPEA.

Will you be converting your entire production to Cradle to Cradle and what difficulties do you expect this to cause?
Backhausen: I don't expect any difficulties whatsoever because of everything we already achieved during the preparatory phase. We held discussions with our dyers, dye manufacturers, finishers as well as with Trevira and we are all on the same track. We will simply be proceeding with the implementation. Because ninety percent of our products contain Trevira CS, our production is relatively easy to convert. Despite the conversion, we can still produce the same quality, the same designs and, to the greatest possible extent, the same colours. So, from that point of view, the changeover is perhaps easier for us than for other companies, big companies for example, with a host of production stages, which are of course impossible to convert overnight. But in our sector, 2009 is a realistic conversion date and I hope that we succeed, through the licensing system, in generating enthusiasm among a host of other manufacturers for the principle of buying into the Cradle to Cradle principle.

Reinhard Backhausen