At this year’s Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego, there was no shortage of inspiring speakers and panels. Hearing about the work that some of the world’s largest corporations are doing in the name of sustainability adds a dash of hope to the grim fact that global concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history.

During the conference, few topics were left untouched; even international sporting events were fair game.

One of the concepts that many of these companies are taking to heart is that of a circular economy, as was discussed in the keynote speech, "Reimagining True North: The Circular Economy," by Alexander Collot d'Escury, CEO of the global carpet and sports systems company Desso.

As part of the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, a circular economy dispenses with the linear model ­whereby goods are made from newly extracted finite natural materials, used and then thrown away. Instead, a product is made with reuse in mind; it is designed smartly with materials that have the ability to be reborn over and over again. As Michael Braungart and William McDonough explain in their book, "The Upcycle":

“Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”

So what’s that got to do with the World Cup grass?

Desso makes things that cover the floor, and in the case of their product, GrassMaster, things that cover the ground as well. And these things they create employ the principle of a circular economy. In one example during his presentation, Collot d'Escury showed images of carpeting the company designed for KLM airlines (pictured below). The carpet has a dark brown and gray Norwegian wool base which is colored using natural dyes, punctuated by a pattern of "KLM blue" dots that are made from recycled KLM uniforms. So smart and simple; cradle-to-cradle by way of skirt-to-carpet.

Desso KLM carpet

Photo: Desso

Collot d'Escury also showed the audience images of the company’s GrassMaster turf, and here’s where this year's World Cup comes into play; the special groundcover was installed at the Arena de Sao Paulo in Brazil for the games.

Although we generally think of manmade materials as candidates for the cradle-to-cradle approach, why not apply it to natural, living systems as well? Grass needs help, there’s no doubt about it. One need only look as far as the nation’s capitol to see the beating that public grass takes. If we could create a way to make grass a smarter “product,” we would be doing both grass and the planet a favor.

So Desso came up with a unique hybrid system that is a 100 percent natural sport grass pitch reinforced by recycled artificial turf fibers. It starts with a mat injected with millions of these turf fibers that are embedded 8 inches deep, with tufts that "sprout" from the top (illustrated below).

GrassMaster fiber

The backbone of GrassMaster turf is the fibers. (Photo: Desso)

After the mat is laid out, grass is planted. As the grass grows, its natural roots intertwine with the injected turf fibers deep in the mat (shown below), resulting in a high-tech, stable pitch that is exceedingly durable. It gives grass a leg to stand on, so to speak. It creates a well-draining surface that is easier to maintain, lasts longer, looks good, and it provides a playing surface that the players like. Importantly, it makes the grass less disposable.

GrassMaster roots

When real grass winds its roots through the artificial turf fibers, a more durable surface is born. (Photo: Desso)

The practicality of using grass for large expanses has come into question due to its resource-intensive requirements and reliance on chemicals for maintenance, combined with the fact that it’s not very durable for public use. But until we give up playing sports on grass ­ – and here the term “when hell freezes over” comes to mind ­– using a system that increases sturdiness and longevity and combines the best of both worlds seems like a winning approach. Score one for grass getting its cradle-to-cradle makeover.

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Is the World Cup being played on real grass?
Well yes … and no. To answer that question, let's take a minute to talk about sustainable design.