I'm afraid I'm going to get a bit theoretical on you this morning. I want to talk about a phrase that's becoming one of the core ideas behind sustainable industry - the concept of Cradle To Cradle.
The idea is pretty simple, and familiar to most of us. It takes the industrial process (in which you source materials and make products from them using manufacturing techniques) and maps it onto the way things work in the natural world. Materials are viewed as nutrients. Manufacturing becomes a metabolism which is fuelled and sustained by these nutrients. The goal is to create closed loops, where the materials and processes used can be fed back into the system, as recycled products or nutrients. Of course, for this to work the materials have to be high quality, and unlikely to cause damage to the system as a whole. In cradle-to-cradle, toxic waste is a no-no.
Let's think about shoes, as an example of what I'm talking about. Say a nice looking Converse-style trainer. Not that I'm obsessed with nice looking Converse-style trainers or anything like that. In a cradle-to-cradle factory, shoes would be made using materials that can either be recycled or reused. The manufacturing process would take rubber offcuts that would normally be thrown away and use them to make more soles for the shoes. In a more extreme version of the model, you would not buy the shoe: you would effectively rent it for a fraction of the cost of buying it outright. Once it's worn out, you would simply return the shoe to the manufacturer, where it would be taken apart and it's materials rolled back into the closed loop.
Taking the example of the Oat Shoe that I've discussed previously, you would plant the shoe once you're done with it, returning it to the environment with the added benefit of flowers growing out of the seeds that were embedded in the sole. There's no reason those seeds couldn't be food crops, either. Plant a shoe, get a salad.
Or look at an example that Pier 32 offers: the fleece made from shredded plastic drinks bottles. Returning waste into the system in an innovative and profitable way is at the core of cradle-to-cradle thinking.
None of this is particularly ground-breaking. But taking the ideas and principles that make sustainability work and putting them into a proper theoretical framework allows users at every point in the supply chain, from supplier to manufacturer to customer, to examine the work flow in an informed way and be able to suggest changes. The closed loop is always open to new ideas.
You can read more than you ever thought you needed to know about cradle-to-cradle at it's Wikipedia page.