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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/August 2001 : Reinventing Step Three

Feature Story
Reinventing the World: Step Three

The Passive Positive List facilitates the transformation of an existing product into an optimal one- while working within the existing infrastructure, the existing marketing and the existing branding-essentially all the conditions around the product.

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series examining a new vision of industry that celebrates natural, cultural and economic abundance. The first two installments explored the authors’ views of what they describe as the unproductive “free of . . .” strategy incorporated by many companies, as well as how personal preferences (based on scientific experience) can help make the best choices among products available today. This articles explores the concept of “passive positives.” Future articles will examine “active positives” and finally, specific steps to take for reinvention.

In our first two columns we described the initial two steps toward eco-effective products: 1.) Free of . . . and 2.) Personal preference (with scientific experience). As transitional steps, these strategies begin the process of defining a product and its characteristics. The first focuses on one thing of specific concern, such as (to use examples from the current market offerings) phosphate-free soap, lead-free paint or chlorine-free bleach. The worrisome substance, usually one of widespread and well-known concern, is removed.

The second step begins a larger review, but without specific or detailed assessment and without in-depth research. It allows a customer or manufacturer to make “preferences” within the current market based on scientific experience. This step offers a way to quickly assess quality from among things already available. For example, choosing between organic produce versus conventionally grown produce.

As you move along the path of the Five Steps, you begin to positively define all materials and substances instead of identifying ones that are “less bad.” Step Three is where true definition begins. It is the point of entry into an eco-effective creation.

In this step, an existing product is examined in a context that will enable its continued manufacture while transformation into an optimal product takes place. You work within the existing infrastructure, the existing marketing and the existing branding—essentially all the conditions around the product—yet you begin making shifts in a product’s design.

For instance, a textile undergoing this step would not dramatically change character and would have similar specifications. But you would begin the inventory and assessment process on a detailed level to understand all elements that are in the textile. You would then assess these and begin assigning degrees of urgency to substances that most concern you.

The X-list

Step Three includes identifying materials found on the lists offered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) or German Maximum Workplace Concentration (MAK) of known or suspected carcinogens and other problematic substances (asbestos, benzene, vinyl chloride, antimony trioxide, cadmium, chromium and so forth). Things flagged during this phase are priority substances in the triage. Substances tagged with the highest degree of priority for removal are placed on what we call the X-list. Replacements are sought and safe substitution is urgently undertaken.

The Gray List

Next, look for things of concern that are not as urgent as X-list items. These are placed on what we call the Gray List. This list also includes substances that we may currently have no viable substitutes for, but which are necessary for continued manufacture. For example, cadmium is an item of serious concern because it can be highly toxic. Presently, some photovoltaic solar collectors (ones that create electricity) are made with cadmium telluride. While one might say this is “bad,” the fact of the matter is that cadmium occurs as a by-product of zinc mining (we all need zinc). If, for the time being, we sequester it safely into solar collectors where the delivery system is controlled and defined, and the manufacturer retains ownership of the cadmium molecules as a technical nutrient according to our Product of Service concept, this may be an appropriate, safe use of the material. We might put this on the Gray List and flag it as an item that needs optimization, but which at the moment is the best we can do. (The Active Positive List assessment, which will be explained in the next issue, would consist of saying: “I want to create safe and delightful new photovoltaics: what would I make them out of if I had a recipe? I might not use cadmium at all.”)

On the other hand, cadmium in the context of a household battery, which may be disposed of indiscriminately and end up in a garbage dump—the valuable technical nutrient lost (what a waste!) and biological systems exposed to danger—is problematic. Or perhaps even worse, the battery might end up in an “environmentally correct” or “energy efficient” incinerator, making the cadmium airborne.

Step Three is particularly applied when manufacturers and business people are already in the business of making a product—they can’t stop making what they are making right away because of economic and market pressures. At a textile company that manufactures polyester fabric, for example, machines are running and substances are being poured into those machines. But instead of pouring this blue in, which might produce mutagens and carcinogens, you would pour that blue in, which does not contain substances of serious concern. The result is a higher quality product.

Free of 138 Toxins and Carcinogens—Present in the Previous Version of Our Product!

Perhaps one of the best ways to explain the Passive Positive List is to give an example of a product that we have worked with in this framework. An ordinary, everyday product on the market was put through our “intellectual filter” and reviewed for materials and their natures
First, we discovered that getting information was like pulling teeth. When we called the suppliers of, say, the axel grease for machinery or of a particular dye and wanted to know exactly what was in the stuff, they did not have that information. (This brings up a notable point: questionable substances in a product might not be coming from the product’s materials but from something in or around the machinery or other processes that make it.)

Suppliers sent us their material safety data sheets, which do not state specific ingredients in products, but rather include instructions for use: wear a mask; wear gloves; if you ingest it, don’t drink water or drink water immediately; if you get it in your eyes flush them with water and call a doctor; and so forth.

We worked through layer upon layer of complexity, and sometimes had to engage in secrecy agreements with suppliers in order for them to tell us what they knew. If they were aware that a carcinogen existed in their products, for example, they did not really want to talk about it. They knew that once we found out we would put it on our X-list as something to be removed.

In order to get much of the information, we had to conduct research on the products ourselves. And what did we find? In this one everyday item, 138 elements were present that were carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic or otherwise problematic.

Discovering that 138 carcinogens have been identified in your product is not good news. From our perspective, the only way to deal with this properly is to immediately (that very minute!) begin the process of transformation. You now have the opportunity to improve your product, to make a new product or both.

Change is difficult. It causes growing pains. Consider the conundrum of being in the transition toward transformation, and yet having to make the existing product again tomorrow.

Case in point: if we are working on a Passive Positive List project with a company, we might find ourselves saying, “This yellow dye contains chrome. We don’t want chrome and we have found another dye that will make yellow for you that doesn’t contain it. Will this work?” A problem may arise for the company in that it has to match the old product currently available. If someone calls up and says, “Can I have more of that yellow whatever?,” the company must be able to meet that desire. This is only one of many layers considered during such a transition: layers of economics, markets, ecology, culture and other inputs and outputs—including, of course, customer satisfaction and desire.

But the good thing about growing pains is that they indicate real change and can galvanize creativity. Even if a company can’t yet transform its product, the Passive Positive List initiates creativity. A company often realizes that if it came out with a new line (using the Active Positive List), it wouldn’t have the problems encountered during the Passive Positive List phase. (At that point, we can engage with the companies who want to do positive things, developing products that meet criteria so they don’t have such problems.) At the end of the Passive Positive List process, the company is still making the old thing, yet it is now as “less bad” as possible and free of as many negative things as it can be.

What is the difference between this and the “free of . . .” step, described earlier? For one thing, “free of . . .” is ordinarily undertaken with a substance perceived to be a problem by the general public, such as chlorine, PVC, fat, pesticides or meat. The first phase of Step Three may end up making a product free of a number of substances based upon research, instead of just one widely perceived as problematic. Your product may be free of a number of things that you did not even realize you wanted to be free of prior to this assessment.

Can you imagine a product that said, “Cancer-free?” or “Carcinogen-free?” How about the ultimate “free of . . .” product: Free of 138 toxins carcinogens present in the previous version of our product!

When we engage with clients in Step Three, we also eliminate substances suspected to be a problem, even if someone might technically get away with saying, “There’s not enough science on this to know whether it’s a danger or not.” If it’s suspicious, why should you (or your customers) have to worry about something potentially harmful in your upholstery, carpet, computers or other products that just might be killing you?

The Positive List
Step Three may also involve what we call our Positive List, which we use extensively in the next two steps, but which can be drawn upon during this step when possible to replace “bad” substances that are X-listed. The Positive List includes substances positively selected for their “good” and useful qualities. It is our inventory of materials and substances that we have discovered (through the processes of our work) that meet the criteria we have established. We are constantly gathering information from many sectors to develop positive material lists, and consolidating and building these lists. You will see the Positive List again in our next article, when it actually comprises the list of ingredients from which all product recipes are made.

No More “Products Plus”
More and more, high quality products will be highly competitive, and they will be demanded (and expected) by the public. People will be asking for high-quality products without those materials associated with birth defects, cancer, destruction of the environment and so on. These will be the new standards, but they won’t be accomplished through regulation. Change will happen by heightening product quality, creativity and customer satisfaction. People aren’t going to want to buy a wall panel fabric that includes antimony, a known carcinogen—what we call a “product plus” (a product plus something negative the customer didn’t intend to buy). We say, “I’ll take the panel fabric, you keep the cancer.”

Step Four: the Active Positive List creates a fully defined product so companies (and customers) are no longer faced with these problems. We will discuss this step in our next article.

<<Part Two


William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders and principals of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy leading a wide variety of companies into what the two call the “Next Industrial Revolution” by implementing eco-effective design and commerce strategies that will result in a future of sustaining and long-term prosperity. For more information, visit


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