Designing for Life - A Q&A with Tarkett Vice President of Sustainability Diane Martel

Tags: cradle to cradle certified (14) , built environment (817)

Long-time sustainability visionary and Cradle to Cradle Certified™ advocate Diane Martel retires from her role as vice president of sustainability for Tarkett this month after 30 years of service. In honor of Diane’s work, and her advocacy of Cradle to Cradle Certified, we asked Diane to share her thoughts on the value and power of Cradle to Cradle Certified in creating a circular economy - and a more positive future. Thank you, Diane, for your passion, commitment and inspiration.

What inspired your commitment to Cradle to Cradle design principles?

I think from day one when I started at Tarkett (I was actually in a marketing position at the time), I really felt that closing the loop on product was becoming more and more important. In my own life I did a lot of recycling, and so why wouldn’t you recycle as a business? That is probably the most important thing that I did at that time. To me, C2C was defining that loop, making sure that the product came back to an end of use, not an end of life. Later I was lucky enough to go to Hanover and spend an intensive with Michael Braungart and EPEA team, which helped me better understand the principles of Cradle to Cradle design, and also what’s behind those principles. For me, the most important thing is that Cradle to Cradle Certified offers such a positive view of the world. We all get tired of talking about how bad we are, and we need to offer a much more positive message to the world. Negativity and fear aren’t the right drivers to make a real change.

By the time I went to Hanover in 2010-2011, we had set up a recycling program that was pretty efficient, but what I hadn’t thought through was the impact of legacy chemicals on the products themselves. Material health is extremely important to me in terms of impact on the planet but also impact on people and I really started being much more aware then, of chemistry.

Closing the loop was the first thing I focused on, but then to me, closing the loop also paralleled the [idea] that waste equals food. But not every waste should be food for every product. So you have to define the chemistry and make sure that what you’re bringing back does not negatively impact people and spaces. I really feel extremely strongly around that topic.  

What do you consider  your greatest accomplishment or biggest point of impact in furthering the circular economy movement? Has Cradle to Cradle Certified assisted with this?

It’s understanding our chemistry. Tarkett as a company made a commitment to really look at our chemistry. That’s a huge number of chemicals when you consider we have 38 plants. It’s really a huge task. Over 3,000 chemicals have been assessed worldwide representing 95% of our materials. So we not only invested in understanding what we had, but we have then tried to optimize our products, and have so far been very successful in positively changing the chemistry of many of our products. Cradle to Cradle Certified has been our North Star in this process. As you try to change things and make a product, you have to answer a series of questions: recycle or reuse? With a circular economy model, is it recycling that should be done? Or reuse? Repurpose? It’s important to close that loop, but the starting point is always around chemistry. It is extremely important that what we put back into product is a healthy material, and Cradle to Cradle Certified has provided us with a roadmap for that.

What is the most pressing challenge you see in the transition to a circular economy?

The biggest challenge we have today are the channels themselves. I’ll talk about the built environment because that’s where we live. We depend on general contractors, recyclers, architects, designers, and end users. It’s extremely different to get people to understand recycling and want to recycle. We have to realize landfills are businesses that would prefer, to have volumes of waste coming into their facilities. In addition, general contractors have very tight timelines and recycling is more taxing on them in terms of time. When you start talking to them, usually they fell like they can’t accomplish that very easily without compromising their schedules. So they are not necessarily supportive of the recycling effort. So the challenge becomes, how do we incentivize people more? How do we create channels that are supportive of processes and practices that support circularity throughout the entire cradle to cradle cycle? That’s what I see as a real issue.

Collaboration is key in developing circular practices and products. Can you share an example of how you’ve collaborated with your supply chain to optimize a Tarkett product or process?

We’ve done this several times over the past few years. For example, we have 2020 targets, and one of our targets was to look at maintenance and insulation -- not the product itself, but specifically how you install it and how you clean it. Any of these elements can impact people and spaces. So we started working with suppliers to think about the adhesives for one, if we focus on the installation part. And we asked our suppliers to think about the adhesives under the lens of Cradle to Cradle, and more importantly material health. We wanted to achieve a Cradle to Cradle Certified Material Health Certificate (MHC) of Silver or higher. We wanted to be safe. No carcinogens, mutagens, no reproductive toxins, anything we used needed to meet the MHC requirements at Silver level or higher. With this goal in mind, we started looking at material health and identified some questionable chemicals. Since that time we have been working with our supply chain to optimize those chemicals so that we don’t use adhesives that contain those materials - so the products we do use and recommend come out of collaboration with our suppliers.

Another example of a material health optimization process that we finalized in 2017 was Eco Ensure. In this case, we replaced fluorinated anti-stain repellents. Using Cradle to Cradle Certified material health methodology, we looked for a new chemistry that would meet the requirements of Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver, but also perform to our standards. This is where it’s important to note that change for the sake of change is not necessarily the best: If you are going to make a change, you have to make sure that the ingredient you are going to change is the best possible ingredient that you have today. That’s why we do third-party assessments. Eco Ensure with a gold MHC was originally launched end of 2017 for our carpet, and today all of our carpets tiles have Eco-ensure chemistry.

You don’t do any of this work on your own: you do it in collaboration with your supply chain, to find and supply new chemistry. We have also been working on new pigments. They are the elements that are the most difficult to change. Often they are natural, so they often have heavy metals, or they’re chlorinated. To find new alternatives can actually be very, very difficult. We started working on this process two or three years ago and are now beginning to replace pigments with those that meet the requirements of the Cradle to Cradle Certified product standard. So, again Cradle to Cradle Certified really serves as our North Star on this journey.

Over the next decade, what are the biggest opportunities and challenges for the Cradle to Cradle & circular economy movement?

I think the biggest challenge for Cradle to Cradle Certified and for the circular economy over the next decade, is that we want to recycle more and more, but we need to identify what end uses for recycling materials make the most sense. We also need to create the channels necessary for bringing back those materials.

By 2050 most of the world’s population will live in cities. Recouping waste from cities will be complex, and create additional stress on infrastructure. We need to think about how to bring back, use and create new products. When we consider population growth and the growth of the middle class over the next 20 years, it’s easy to see how much stress it will put on the planet’s natural capital as well as the environment. How do we create robust circular systems and processes to help protect quality of life for people and for our planet? Living indoors will become the reality for many folks. How do we keep those people and spaces healthy?

What advice would you give to a young professional in your field, or a company just starting out in looking to make a positive impact? What lessons learned would you pass on?

You always have to make a business case to make the changes you want to make. But also don’t compromise. You have to be very truthful, always, and be faithful to your values. If you’re not aligned with your values, it won’t work.

What other closing thoughts would you like to share?

My passion has always been about people and spaces. I really feel that we have an obligation as a society to ensure that people are safe in spaces. Wellbeing in people should be a top priority. We spend  90% of our time indoors currently, and this may increase as cities become more and more autonomous, and more and more people live in the center of those spaces. In other words, we’re designing for life, not just the people, but for the planet. What I like about Cradle to Cradle Certified is that it focuses on positively impacting this planet and making it better for our children.