German Sustainability Award: Prof. Dr Michael Braungart receives honorary award

2022-11-28 The professor of eco-design at the School of Sustainability is being honoured with Europe's biggest award for his groundbreaking scientific contributions as a co-developer of the "cradle-to-cradle" principle. He created an approach a good 20 years ago that sees humans as a potential opportunity in overcoming the climate crisis. The concept aims at a perfect recycling system that leaves no waste behind and thus at positive contributions to ecology instead of pure damage limitation. The award is presented annually by the German Sustainability Award Foundation and will take place this year on 1 and 2 December in Düsseldorf.

Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart ©Audi AG 2018
"We can learn to be useful to the planet now, not just less harmful," says Michael Braungart.

"The traditional definition of sustainability is actually a rather sad one," says Michael Braungart, "namely to meet the needs of the current generation without harming the future one." Actually, that's an absurdity, the chemist thinks: "We have to understand that less bad doesn't equal good."

That is the basic idea behind the Cradle to Cradle concept, which Michael Braungart developed in the 1990s together with the US architect William McDonough. If you try to reduce your mistakes, you may do less wrong - but that doesn't mean you do anything right, says the former Greenpeace activist. Instead, Cradle-to-Cradle focuses on a holistic solution: setting positive goals and thus creating added value; developing technological and biological closed-loop systems that are self-contained and make a positive contribution to the climate.

"The idea was originally to understand that no problem can be solved by the same mindset that caused it," Braungart explains. Cradle-to-cradle means thinking in cycles - in other words: reusing resources in a sensible way so that waste products are no longer created in the first place. The result of a radical implementation of the principle? A world without waste. Since he developed the concept with his US colleague more than 20 years ago, a lot has happened: "Many companies have emerged from cradle-to-cradle, even among freshmen who are learning about it for the first time." One example is the model label "MANGONUMBERFIVE", founded by Leuphana students. The materials from which the sustainable label's clothing is made are composed exclusively of environmentally friendly nutrients. This means that after use, the T-shirt returns to nature's biological system and becomes natural food for animals, for example.

Companies worldwide are now following Braungart's concept: "There are now over sixteen thousand Cradle to Cradle certified products. It's amazing how quickly this is taking hold, I wouldn't have expected it in my lifetime," says Braungart, "The concept of sustainability is just reinventing itself in a new and different way, and that's beautiful."

As the "father" of the cradle-to-cradle principle, Michael Braungart will receive the Honorary Award of the German Sustainability Award in December. "This award is a great honour," says Braungart, "the German Sustainability Award brings together politics, science and companies. We finally need joint solutions, the time of one-sided right-winging is over."

Braungart has been teaching eco-design at Leuphana since 1994. Actually, the term is somewhat misleading, Braungart thinks: "There is either good design or bad design. Design that leads to waste has a flaw. Practically all important design schools in the world now also teach Cradle to Cradle. It makes designers more important, they were prettifiers before, now they are really designing." The current generation makes him optimistic: "What helps with implementation is that there is a young generation that wants to be proud of itself. People want to do the right thing if given the chance." He also appreciates this about universities: "We can learn to be useful for the planet now, not just less harmful. Of course, that also means saving and replacing oil, coal and gas. But it means above all understanding people as an opportunity. And the university is a place where people, where students are understood as an opportunity."

The German Sustainability Award

The 15th German Sustainability Award will be presented in Düsseldorf on 1 and 2 December 2022. The prize honours people who make groundbreaking contributions to progress towards a sustainable future. Previous laureates include Joachim Gauck, Jane Goodall, Richard Gere and Ursula von der Leyen.