Cradle to Cradle

In their 1976 research report to the European Commission in Brussels ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy’, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as a book “Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy”. Today these factors are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainable development: ecologic, economic and social compatibility.

Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy, Walter Stahel

In 1981, Stahel synthesized these ideas in his prize winning paper “The Product-Life Factor” and identified selling utilization instead of goods as the ultimate sustainable business model of a loop economy: selling utilisation enables to create sustainable profits without an externalization of the costs of risk and costs of waste.

In their 1987 report “Economic Strategies of Durability – longer product-life of goods as waste prevention strategy”, Stahel and Börlin demonstrated that economic actors in a loop economy can achieve a higher profitability than their competitors in the throughput economy. Using 30 case studies, the report showed that for a loop economy to be fully successful, a restructuring of the industrial economy and its framework conditions would be helpful.

As a reaction to this report in 1987, some experts put forward the idea of a product responsibility “from cradle to grave” as an alternative to a circular economy, with the advantage that cradle to grave was compatible with the existing linear economic model.

Cradle to Cradle, loop economy, economy in loops, circular economy, cradle back to cradle, cradle to grave, Walter StahelWalter R. Stahel, by training an architect, countered this idea by pointing out that “cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions. Stahel insisted that the really sustainable solution was to use durable goods in a loop from “cradle back to cradle”.

Michael Braungart, a chemist by training, promoted around the same time material recycling as a loop “cradle back to cradle”, again as a reaction to the end of pipe issue of “cradle to grave”. Stahel and Braungart met several times at conference in Germany and discussed their position of swimming against the mainstream.

The fact that in 1989, German experts still upheld the position that waste prevention was only possible in manufacturing processes, but not in product utilisation, shows the revolutionary nature of these early reports by the Product-Life Institute in Geneva.

In a 1989 report to the Ministry of the Environment of Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart, entitled Long-life goods and material recycling, Stahel demonstrated the competitive advantages of longer product-life strategies in a loop economy, compared to recycling, and the impact of appropriate industrial design. The three case studies of this report are still shown on the website and have achieved the highest numbers of hits in the past.

One of the case studies in the report—sustainable clothes’ washing—showed the advantages of “selling goods as services” in the context of an intensive shared utilisation: all washing machines are designed to last about 15 years, but semi-commercial washing machines in Laundromats are designed to deliver 30.000 wash cycles in this period (compared to 3000 for household equipment) and use water in a loop. The customer pays a fixed amount per wash cycle; operating (water, energy, space), as well as maintenance and repair costs of the equipment are included in this price. A separate website shows the origins and recent development of the business models of “selling goods as service” and “selling performance”.

Journalists have raised the question when Stahel had used the term “cradle to cradle” for the first time. The precise date in the 1980s is difficult to find as Stahel works and teaches in German, French and English, and promoted his ideas through many publications, such as books, journals and newspaper articles, but also numerous workshops, conference papers and seminars in all three languages. Max Börlin, his co-director at that time, also worked in Italian.

The second question therefore is to know in what language the term was first used: in English “cradle to cradle”, in German von der Wiege zur nächsten Wiege, or in French d’un berceau à l’autre?

An analysis of the archives of the Product-Life Institute would provide the answer to when and in what form the term “cradle to cradle” was first used by Stahel. Another issue is if this is really the key question.

In all his papers of the 1980s, Stahel has emphasized the importance of the economic, ecologic and social advantages of the loop economy, which is increasingly referred to as circular economy:

  • The substantial economic differences between reusing goods and components versus recycling molecules,
  • The axiom of the smallest loop as the most profitable one, which has to be considered in defining sustainable corporate strategies,
  • The necessity to close the liability loop in addition to the physical loops, especially in legislation and policy making,
  • The link between energy/resources inputs and job creation in a loop economy.

Read through the list of publications to see the variety and wealth of information researched and published by the Product-Life Institute in the last quarter of the 20th century. And keep in mind that Stahel also worked as guest lecturer at many universities in Europe and the USA – and that those scripts remained unpublished.