I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

May 5, 2010

The Product-Life Institute’s approach to ‘cradle to cradle’

Perhaps getting ahead of myself here (that is, I haven’t gotten close to finishing my summary of McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle), but I wanted to include this because of Walter Stahel’s  role in the creation of a “cradle to cradle” approach (as opposed to a “cradle-to-grave” approach.

“Cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions.

The Product-Life Institute was founded in 1982 by Orio Giarini and Walter R. Stahel, who were joined after a few month by Max Börlin.  The main focus of the Product-Life Institute is on practical strategies and approaches is to produce higher real wealth and economic growth with considerably lower resource consumption. Create more manual and skilled jobs with greatly reduced resource consumption. Promote the business concepts of the Functional Service Economy that focuses on the performance of goods and services, the utilization value as its central notion of economic value and private-sector initiatives to finance public works.  (from its website)

Cradle to Cradle at the Product-Life Institute


From the website:

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.

In 1982, 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.

Walter 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”…..

The main objectives of the Product-Life Institute are to open new frontiers of economic development towards a Functional Service Economy that focuses on selling performance (services) instead of goods (product liability), internalizing all costs (cradle to cradle), product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention.

The vision is a sustainable economy and society resting on five pillars:

  1. Nature conservation
  2. Limited toxicity
  3. Resource productivity
  4. Social ecology
  5. Cultural ecology

Includes a link to the article, Product-Life Factor (Mitchell Prize Winning Paper 1982), which describes the impact product-life extension could have on creating more sustainable economies.

Also includes an announcement of the publication of The Performance Economy: Second Edition (Spring 2010) by Walter Stahel in which he “looks at the role of entrepreneurs and other innovators and how the dominating business models of the current ‘industrial economy’ are changing to those of a ‘performance economy’.”  A performance economy is one in which goods are not sold, but are provided as services.

Other resources

The Product-Life Institute’s blogs

Links to other resources on sustainability and eco-design

Includes links to conferences, websites, and a list of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the Product-Life Institute works with.

A link to the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) is included under “Courses on sustainability.”  SAGE is a research center in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  While it does offer coursework in a wide variety of environmental studies, the only thing I found on the site (admittedly after a very brief scan) was the Roy F. Weston Distinguished Global Sustainability Lecture Series, a limited number of which have PowerPoint presentations or QuickTime audiocasts.  However, it does have information for anyone interested in pursuing studies in sustainability and environmental studies.

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