As consumers increasingly make purchasing choices based on their values, in particular, environmental values, the idea of manufacturers reducing the environmental impact of their products from cradle to grave is not a new one. In fact, it has been around for many years. Consumer goods manufacturers are investing in upgrades to facilities to achieve LEED certification and investing in less packaging with higher recycled content. The latest announcement from auto manufacturer BMW that its first fully electric vehicle will go into mass production later this year was a big one for a company that consistently ranks in the top spot on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, but is the company that is in the lead already falling behind?
Arguably, BMW does a lot of things right. From investing in the communities where the company does business to working with external partners to capture methane gas to use as energy, using solar panels to power manufacturing facilities to LEED certification, BMW is leading the pack. With the announcement that the new i3 is going into mass production this year at its LEED Gold certified facility, BMW put even more of its environmental sustainability money where its mouth is. The company is using lighter materials which will reduce the overall weight of the car, reducing the amount of energy it takes to get around town. The new i3 is fully electric, which will reduce emissions. Recycled, renewable and sustainable materials can be found throughout the vehicle. So you could suggest that this car, and BMW, deserve a gold star. But have they figured out what’s next?
A concept that emerged in the early 2000s, proposed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, is the idea of cradle to cradle – using nature as a model for sustainability. In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things the authors suggest that we look at the true life cycle of products beyond just how they are made and disposed of, but how to ensure that at the end of their useful primary purpose, products can go back into the environment, or other products, in a way that is productive and feeds what’s next.
For BMW, and other manufacturers of consumer products, the idea of manufacturing with the end in mind is an ambitious one, but a good one nonetheless. Can you imagine? A car that at the end of its useful life can be completely dismantled and used for another valuable purpose? If the effort and attention that have gone into the new i3 are any indication, I’m pretty sure BMW is already on it.
If every product we purchased could be reused in the manufacture of another product, or biodegraded to provide nutrients for agriculture that is sustainably farmed – what would the impact be?