IT MIGHT SURPRISE YOU TO KNOW JUST how far and wide into the resources chain a single product, such as a vinyl window, can extend. Everything counts on the environmental report card, from the oil used to keep the welder pumping, to the chemicals used to clean the floors in the plant, to the mixing of the polyvinyl chloride, to the disposal of the window 50 years down the line.
Now imagine you understood the cost, efficiency, and environmental impact of every one of those processes, to the nearest decimal point. Wouldn't such knowledge help to identify missed opportunities, reduce polluting activities, reuse valuable resources, and still offer a market-competitive product?
That's exactly what Les Teichner, COO of Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago, hopes to accomplish. He admits that the road will be a long, tough one, but the company has made a serious commitment to a concept called “cradle-to-cradle design.”
If that term sounds familiar, it's because companies in other industries have also made it their goal. The idea, which was the brainchild of William McDonough and his consulting firm, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), has been formalized since about 1995. McDonough, who wrote a book on the topic, Cradle to Cradle, suggests that most industrial manufacturers follow an unsustainable, cradle-to-grave model, where raw materials extracted from the earth end up in landfills or incinerators. In his cradle-to-cradle alternative, materials move in a closed loop, being reused or recycled into other useful goods. Republic has recently begun testing the principles, and the company is already learning things it never expected.
“What you need to do is to work backward, down your supply chain, and pretty soon, you begin to bump into people who may have a far less sophisticated view of things,” says Teichner. “They may simply not care as much about these kinds of issues. It's very challenging, and there's a big educational component that we never anticipated. You want the suppliers to be responsible, but you run into liability issues. They have a lot of concerns—about revealing their chemical formulas, for example.
“The reality is that all of these [changes] have a cost,” he adds. “You need to lower your costs to stay competitive, yet still have a product that performs well and has a good design that people will pay for.”
Sound Principles Despite that resistance, Teichner believes the program will ultimately strengthen his company. “I'm not somebody who's philosophical, but I do think it lowers the cost of production because you understand everything that's there,” he says. “By definition I should become a better producer.”
And at some levels, Republic's initial efforts to break down and analyze its suppliers, processes, and materials has already begun to pay off. By studying the way windows are constructed in Germany, for example, Teichner says his teams started thinking more about acoustic qualities.
“Acoustical advantage is something we can really sell,” he says. “The Germans deal with heavy, big windows. We think that idea can be done in a more scientific way, so that component parts could be replaced at different parts of their life cycle.”
Of course, Republic's motivations are also driven by the bottom line. Teichner says the company sees long-term advantage in branding, by seizing this environmental high ground. He also expects to obtain other marketable information in the cradle-to-cradle analysis.
“My interest is to not only understand this whole process, but on the backside we could become a licensing entity and make the things we learn available to other manufacturers. It's clear our interest also is in staking out some brand interest. As a manufacturer, we've often worked behind the scenes and without a lot of brand identity, so for us it's a comfortable spot to be doing this.”
SYSTEMS, SYSTEMS, SYSTEMS If you've attended a builder show recently, or visited a show home, then you may have heard a lot of talk about the house “as a system.” Teichner says that this same holistic view has been a critical part of his efforts to move Republic toward MBDC principles.
“In this first phase, we began by exploring the very idea that one can be innovative in the window industry,” Teichner explains.
“What we came to understand is that a window is only a window when it is installed. You actually complete the manufacturing process outside of the factory. So we really have to understand the installation process what's going on [environmentally].”
With that concept in mind, Republic has now begun to pursue closer relationships with builders and remodelers—the people who install its products.
“A lot of today's contracts between builders and suppliers are punitive in nature,” he says, “[they are] not true partnerships. This relationship should be a symphony, where the builder leads the orchestra, and he and the supplier create beautiful music. Instead of that, the contract says that if the supplier doesn't play well, he'll get smacked across the head with the violin.
“We're at phase one and a half out of three or four phases,” Teichner adds. “At this point, we're trying denominate every input, then put it through an analytical system, then start applying it in our factory, then employ the technology and bring builders in. We have a long-term, continuing commitment to the process.”
A world-renowned expert on environmental design, William McDonough published a book titled Cradle to Cradle, which lays out in detail the tenets of closed-loop production, in the context of preserving the environment. It's interesting to note that the book is printed on synthetic paper made with inorganic resins. It can be recycled the same way a yogurt container is. You can order the book directly from Amazon.com or Booksense.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.