|Editors 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
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 brandingessentially
all the conditions around the productyet you begin making
shifts in a products 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.
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
On the other hand, cadmium in the context of a household battery,
which may be disposed of indiscriminately and end up in a garbage
dumpthe valuable technical nutrient lost (what a waste!) and
biological systems exposed to dangeris 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 productthey
cant 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 CarcinogensPresent 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
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 products 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, dont
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 dont want chrome and we have found
another dye that will make yellow for you that doesnt 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 outputsincluding,
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 cant
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 wouldnt 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 dont 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, Theres not enough science on this
to know whether its a danger or not. If its 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 wont be accomplished
through regulation. Change will happen by heightening product quality,
creativity and customer satisfaction. People arent going to
want to buy a wall panel fabric that includes antimony, a known
carcinogenwhat we call a product plus (a product
plus something negative the customer didnt intend to buy).
We say, Ill 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.
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 www.mbdc.com.