Albin Kälin is a true visionary and pioneer of sustainability in manufacturing. He is responsible for establishing Cradle to Cradle Design Innovations with his peers in industry and with brands.
For more than 30 years, he has been at the forefront of Cradle to Cradle innovation and implementation across industry. Cradle to Cradle Certified™️ is a certification mark exclusively licensed by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. As founder and president of the Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency in Switzerland, today, his team consults and supports companies in their development of cradle to cradle products and services. EPEA Switzerland is also an official accredited assessor for the Cradle to Cradle Certified certification.
The guiding principles of cradle to cradle are holistic and model industry on nature’s processes, seeing all ingredients as nutrients that circulate in safe and healthy systems. As Kälin says, “Products should be able to be used again and again in closed industrial cycles over many life cycles or, they should be biodegradable without residue, be safe and not lose their quality.” As the impact of climate change takes hold and our ecosystems become increasingly fragile, cradle to cradle principles are more relevant than ever. The World Economic Forum forecasts, “Urban societies will consume more resources per capita, many resources will be scarce, and the environmental cost of creating virgin resources will soon be too much for the planet to bear.” As industries wake up to these facts, a growing number of companies across the globe are adopting cradle to cradle principles, not only for the environmental benefits but out of economic necessity. It is these very principles that have informed and provided a structure for the development of the circular economy.
They say a crisis often opens the door to opportunities, and for Kälin, it was life-changing. In the nineties, as CEO of Rohner Textil, Kälin was faced with an environmental, financial, and social crisis. Looking back, he reflects, “I had begun environmental accounting in 1992. I talked openly and said, ‘Accounting is not telling the truth. It doesn’t show the real cost.’ All of the environmental burdens or costs belong to an organization. You have to be able to manage this in a way that it becomes transparent. So, I developed systems to prove this.” His ingenuity and foresight would pay off.
At the time, not only was the textile industry in the region facing massive disruption as production moved to Asia, new government regulations left Kälin with the decision to ‘innovate or close’ the mill, due to the hazardous chemical waste it was producing. He chose to innovate, and the company invested in new technology to increase productivity and address their waste-water problem. As he reflects, “We were trying to survive the situation. We were completely aware but working with a linear way of thinking.” At this time, Designtex, a Steelcase Corporation, commissioned the mill to produce environmentally responsible fabrics and introduced Kälin to William McDonough, the environmental architect, and designer.
It was a fortuitous conversation with McDonough driving to the mill from Zurich airport, which transformed Kälin’s thinking. He explained the innovations they had adopted at the mill to address the environmental challenges. They had been successful. When they had sent in their waste-water for testing they received a call to say they had made a mistake and had sent in drinking water. They had not; it was just that the waste-water was now drinking water quality. Despite such successes, Kälin still felt the sums did not quite add up.
McDonough’s response was simple. “Waste equals food.” It was the catalyst Kälin needed to shift his linear thinking to a systems approach, enabling him to realise his vision for a manufacturing process that did not diminish the quality of the materials involved and would create ‘compost for the farmers’.
As he says, “This is a kind of understanding that has not much to do with education. It’s just a deep feeling inside telling you that this is right. I knew that day; we had to change our chemicals. If we had not changed the chemical input, we would have had a problem, because the concentration would have increased.” They tested more than 8000 chemicals, and only selected 16 as safe and appropriate for their fabric production. Together with McDonough’s partner, Professor Michael Braungart, an ecological toxicologist, they produced the first cradle to cradle product, a textile, registered under the brand mark Climatex.
This is a kind of understanding that has not much to do with education. It’s just a deep feeling inside telling you that this is right.
Kälin’s innovative approach earned Rohner Textiles 19 awards and impacted the textile industry globally. He
shared the formula for the cradle to cradle processes with the entire textile industry. Kälin understood that
sharing knowledge was critical for the development of technologies and to drive innovation. As he says,
“We’ve tried to find every little angle possible to bring it to other people to share.” Kälin’s pioneering spirit of seeking collaboration, rather than taking ownership was unprecedented. Today, collaboration is crucial for a company to succeed in the circular economy. His cooperation with McDonough and Braungart led to a partnership, which continues to this day. As Kälin explains, “Prof Michael Braungart said, ‘We know how to make these scientific assessments, how to see it from the scientific point of view; what is missing is the implementation. You are coming from industry. We need you to make it possible for this to be implemented in
industry.’ So, the first task was to give the science a face. The face is cradle to cradle.” The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ design concept became a registered trademark, and the Cradle to Cradle certification standard established.
Cradle to cradle certification regulations are comprehensive and stringent. Companies are required to fulfill standards in five categories; Material Health, Social Fairness, Material Reutilisation, Renewable Energy, and Water Stewardship. Cradle to Cradle Certified™ was created as an independent global product certification and a means to make “public which materials, dyes and chemicals are okay.” Inspired by nature, cradle to cradle is regenerative by design. The concept of waste is eliminated. Every material is a nutrient forming part of a technological or biological cycle. Used materials do not become waste but rather the “nutrients” for a new product. In the ‘technical cycle,’ nutrients are made from non-toxic synthetic materials that have zero negative environmental impact. These are service products whose components are designed to be reused over and over again as resources for new products, maintaining their high material quality and integrity. Nutrients in the ‘biological cycle’ are organic materials that are disposed of in any natural environment to make industrial compost or other materials to produce new products. Some biological nutrients are used several times in a technological cycle before being returned as nutrients for the biosphere.
The circular economy follows the principles of the cradle to cradle design concept. However, most companies fail to address the essential criteria; ‘material safety.’ It highlights one of the biggest mistakes companies are making today; addressing sustainability with linear thinking. As Kälin explains, “It is pretty simple because all the systems we work with today are all based on linear thinking. For example, if you look at lifecycle analyses. They have been opposing cradle to cradle. They have said, ‘It is wrong. It’s not scientifically sound.’ They had to admit two years ago that in all of the lifecycle assessments, they have never included the microfibre, microplastic, or the bottles in the sea. It’s linear thinking. It’s a line. And at the end of the line, is a garbage bin. Now they realise it’s about circularity. So what do they do? They say, ‘We have a line. We can make a circle out of this line.’ But the problem is that the garbage is still there. The problem is it needs a little bit more to get rid of the garbage, and that’s the issue.” As an example, he sites Philips, who have tried to address circularity by renting out lighting solutions. He makes the point, “You know, you never hear them talking about materials. It’s very good to have services in a circular approach; just don’t forget about the materials, because that’s what it’s all about. They just leave it out. I can see so many young people and designers thinking about service concepts for the circular economy, but they all forget the materials.” The global trend has been for industries to address sustainability “by trying to reduce the CO2. Governments are upporting industry to do this, but it’s only one part. They are still looking at linear solutions.” Thankfully, as the European Union implements the ‘New Circular Economy Action Plan for a Cleaner and More Competitive Europe,’ they have heeded Kälin’s advice on adopting a “safe and circular economy.”
To create closed-loop systems is complex. It demands an in-depth understanding and a systems approach to tackle the environmental, sociological, and economic challenges that arise. It is why Kälin says, “Design is really important; engineering is really important, but management is crucial because you have to bring all the different elements together.” He is exceptionally proud of EPEA Switzerland’s work with the luxury hosiery brand Wolford and rightly so. They have achieved the gold standard Cradle to Cradle Certified in both the technological and biological cycles for their products. Their vision is for 50% of their products to be certified Cradle to Cradle Certified by 2025. Working with Kälin, Wolford created a biodegradable polyester (PET) from Inogema, that is 100% toxic-free, which is safe for the environment and human health. Today, more than 99% of polyester produced uses antimony, which is a known carcinogen. As 66% of clothing produced in the world has polyester, the potential impact is enormous.
Kälin is pragmatic in that product development takes time, innovation, and collaboration. “We have seen many of the things we produce are not sustainable. So we get people with the greatest expertise to the table to implement this holistic approach and come up with entirely innovative solutions.” He gives an example; “There are a lot of people making cotton or natural fibre products, but to achieve a function it has to have stretch. So, in 2002 I started a project to develop a biodegradable elastomer, and it took 15 years. You don’t learn this in school. In management education, you learn the return of investment has to be below two years. But these major developments take one decade or two. It takes a generation. A computer took 40 years to become mainstream.”
It has been Kälin’s dogged determination to push boundaries, his foresight to insist on quality and consistency that the cradle to cradle certified certification is globally the most recognised and stringent standard in sustainability. When working with companies, Kälin and his team at EPEA Switzerland prefer not to look at past mistakes but instead choose to look at the opportunities and solutions the present offers. As he says, “I founded EPEA Switzerland to implement cradle to cradle projects from the innovation part and as well from the management part. We can certify products because we are an accredited assessor. We are twenty-three people now in our network. We are acting globally. We have a lot of projects with companies that want to be innovative. We want to show solutions.” Cradle to Cradle principles are gaining recognition globally as a viable solution for humanity to exist and live within planetary boundaries. For Kälin, it is a matter of fact, “We are not running out of ideas. We are running out of resources.” As more industry leaders and governments look to Kälin for advice, there is no doubt the positive impact of his work is enormous and will be felt for generations to come.