Tuesday, April 08, 2008

From Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die:

The story goes as follows. In 1993, McDonough and a chemist, Michael Braungart, were hired by the Swiss textile manufacturer Rohner Textil, which produces fabrics for Steelcase chairs. Their mission was one that most people in the textile industry considered impossible: Create a manufacturing process without using toxic chemicals.

The textile industry routinely deals with hazardous chemicals. Most dye colors contain toxic elements. In fact, the trimmings from Rohner Textil's factory -- the excess cloth not used on the chairs -- contained so many questionable chemicals that the Swiss government classified them as hazardous waste. Furthermore, the trimmings couldn't be burned or buried in Switzerland -- to comply with government regulations, they had to be exported -- shipped to a country with laxer regulations, such as Spain...

...They asked chemical factories to open their books and talk about how the chemicals were manufactured. McDonough told the companies, "Don't tell us 'it's proprietary and legal.' If we don't know what it is, we're not using it. Sixty chemical companies turned them down. Finally the chairman of one firm, Ciba-Geigy, said okay.

McDonough and Braungart studied 8,000 chemicals commonly used in the textile industry. They measured each chemical against a set of safety criteria. Of the chemicals they tested, 7,962 failed. They were left with 38 chemicals -- but those were "safe enough to eat" according to McDonough...

Amazingly, using just those 38 chemicals, they were able to create a complete line of fabrics, containing every color but black. The fabric they chose was made from natural materials -- wool and a plant fibre called ramie. When the production process went online, inspectors from the Swiss government came to check the water flowing out of the plant to make sure chemical emissions were within legal limits. "At first, the inspectors thought their equipment had broken," said McDonough says. The instruments were detecting nothing in the water. Then the inspectors tested the water flowing into the factory, which was Swiss drinking water, and found that the equipment was fine. McDonough says, "The fabrics during the production process were further filtering the water."

McDonough's new process wasn't just safer, it was cheaper. Manufacturing costs shrank 20 percent. The savings came, in part, from the reduced hassle and expense of dealing with toxic chemicals. Workers no longer had to wear protective clothing. And the scraps -- instead of being shipped to Spain for burial -- were converted to felt, which was sold to Swiss farmers and gardeners for crop insulation.

Inspired, by this story - I went to the library and grabbed a related book that I had been meaning to read for some time: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Its only when I sat down and started reading it that I realized it was written by McDonough and Braungart.

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