|Editors Note: This is the final article
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. The third article explored the
concept of passive positives, and the fourth examined
active positives. This final installment gives specific
steps to take for reinvention.
Designers are uniquely
empowered to act on their hopes. As the creators of products and
systems for the built environment, they are the dreamers who transform
inspiration into the cherished things we use every day, the places
in which we live and work and our much-loved modes of communication
We could say, in fact, that design conceives our future; it is the
first signal of human intention, and it sets in motion a whole range
of effects that ripple through human communities and the natural
world of today, tomorrow and, in some cases, nearly forever.
Steps One through Four represent a dinner of ever-increasing
pleasures, Step Five is more than dessertits a party.
||So what kind of future do we want to conceive?
How can we act intelligently on our hopes to create a world
of prosperity, abundance and delight? In this, the last of a
five-part series on ecologically intelligent designwhat
we call eco-effectivenesswe suggest some of the ways in
which true innovation can achieve a broad spectrum of positive,
regenerative effects on the world, allowing commerce, community
and nature to thrive and grow.
The Five-step Path
Our five-step strategy of eco-effective design describes a process
in which designers employ an ever-broadening ability to define,
select and, ultimately, reinvent product ingredients, industrial
systems and even the relationships between producers and customers.
Its intention is nothing less than the transformation of human industry;
it seeks a world in which the production and consumption of goods
is not only safe and profitable, but also ecologically enriching
and socially valuable.
As you may recall, the first step in the strategy aims to remove
from a product a specific chemical widely known to be harmful, such
as lead or chlorine. The second step begins a more comprehensive
review in which a customer or manufacturer makes a list of preferred,
readily available materials known to be safely created or harvested
with minimal negative impact.
Moving along the five-step path, designers begin to examine all
of a products ingredients rather than simply removing
the most onerous substances or adding a few elements that are less
At Step Three, designers examine the palette of materials
used in an existing product while it continues to be manufacturedthe
goal is to replace problematic ingredients without missing
a beat in the marketplace. A company that manufactures polyester
fabric, for example, can keep its machines humming as it replaces
the input of a dangerous polymer with one that does not contain
substances of serious concern.
Step Four is the true entry into eco-effective design. At
this point in the journey, designers aim to actively define
a products ingredients, right from the start. The idea
is not to limit the impact of a product or system, but to
conceive one with positive effects on the world. A designer
aiming for positive effects employs the intelligence of natural
systemssuch as the effectiveness of nutrient cycling
or the abundance of the suns energyto create products
actively defined as nutrients for the earths two discrete
metabolisms: the cycles of nature and industry.
conceives our future; it is the first signal of human intention,
and it sets in motion a whole range of effects that ripple through
human communities and the natural world of today, tomorrow and,
in some cases, nearly forever.
In a world of what we call cradle-to-cradle design, a products
biological and technical nutrients would flow in one or the other
of these discrete, closed-loop cycles, providing nourishment for
something new after each useful life. In the textile industry, for
instance, weve helped companies conceive fabrics as both biological
and technical nutrientsfood for local soils and rematerialized
ingredients for industry, respectively.
And now we come to Step Fivetrue innovation.
The Fruits of Reinvention
Weve used the preparation of a meal as a metaphor for the
step-by-step process of eco-effective design. At each phase, the
designerthe host and chefbegins to create the meal by
asking the simple question, What is my intention? Aiming
to be free of a dangerous ingredient at Step One, her
meal might have resembled a humble dinner prepared to avoid an offending
fooda meal without meat, dairy or sugar. Moving through the
steps, the chefs choices widen as she identifies new intentions.
By Step Four, she is actively choosing ingredients to create a meal
that is nourishing, tasty and fulfilling.
If Steps One through Four represent a dinner of ever-increasing
pleasures, Step Five is more than dessertits a party.
From a design perspective, embracing a festive spirit means bringing
inventive energy to the table and asking not simply what ingredients
would be nutritious, but how a product or service might best celebrate
a basic human need, revitalize an aspect of culture or renew our
engagement with the natural world. One might begin to ask, How
might my product fulfill peoples wants, needs and loves? Are
my current business practices the best way to provide my service
to customers? What service am I providing, anyway?
if we sought a bigger ecological footprint? Materials and
products designed as nutrients can actually make humanity
a regenerative force.
Consider the automobile. We dont have to list the ways in
which car owners have begun to feel that their need for mobility
is in conflict with their desire for a convivial, healthy world.
But rather than declare cars the enemy, we suggest that cars are
just not serving our needs very effectively. Theyre ripe for
A designer might respond to this challenge by creating a more efficient
car that has a minimal impact on the environment, such as a hydrogen-powered
hyper car free of carbon emissions. One could also employ a preference
for a safe, organic upholstery fabric or begin to reassess each
material used in the making of automobiles. Ultimately, manufacturers
might optimize their vehicles by using positively defined biological
and technical nutrients and creating a coherent system for the retrieval
and reuse of the cars valuable materials.
Each of these solutions reflects one of the values on the step-by-step
path of eco-effective design. Together, they add up to revolutionary
changeschanges on which we are actively working so we can
bring them to car manufacturers and auto parts suppliers. But we
think theres yet another crucial step: what if we thought
of the auto industry not simply as a maker of cars, but as a provider
of mobility? How might the industry best provide the service of
mobility to meet the wants, needs and loves of its customers? Could
we design new kinds of mobility systems that serve a rich social
If we explore not just the car, but also the many needs it fulfills,
we can begin to imagine the reinvention of the whole paradigm of
As a mobility provider, for example, a manufacturer might offer
customers access to many different kinds of vehicles rather than
just selling them a car. Why own and maintain three cars when you
could use the service of a big, spacious vehicle for family trips;
a sports car for a weekend date; or a public community car to transport
your children? In each case youd be provided the service of
mobility by an automaker that owned and reused the vehicles
valuable materials and utilized them effectively by keeping their
resources in motion.
Take the community car. As part of a broadly defined local or regional
transportation plan, a fleet of community cars could provide people
a range of services throughout the day. Responding to electronic
calls, the cars could deliver people to transportation hubs in the
morning; ferry groceries, laundry and prescriptions during the day;
deliver children from school to violin practice or their grandmothers
house in the late afternoon; and take couples to the movies at night.
Built and used within an evolving system of coherent material flows,
the community cars could manifest a wide spectrum of positive effects.
People formerly excluded from transportationchildren, the
elderly, the handicapped would have ready access to mobility.
Plus, the retirees operating the community cars would be able to
maintain their sense of community and their ties to the young. The
systems effectivenessits ability to both optimize the
use of materials and conveniently move people to the places they
want to gowould generate wealth for providers as well as satisfaction,
free time and peace of mind for customers.
The reinvention of mobility illustrates a key principle of eco-effective
innovation: products are essentially packaging for services. With
this in mind, designers can begin to apply the five steps to all
products of service, conceiving effective, intelligent systems for
meeting the most basic human needslike washing ones
A designer developing an eco-effective laundry detergent, for example,
might follow steps one through four to progressively create a product
with only safe, nutritious ingredients. A step-four soap might be
defined by the chemistry of the local water supply. It might also
be produced locally in dry pellet form and sold in bulk, obviating
the need for packaging and the expensive long-distance transportation
of heavy liquid concentrates.
At Step Five, one might build on the reformulation of soap to develop
a strategy for delivering an effective laundering service to the
home. This strategy would include the washing machine itself, which
would be conceived as a product of service designed for retrieval,
disassembly and reuse. The machine would be delivered to a customers
home pre-loaded with detergent for 1,000 loads of laundrythe
customer pays not for the machine, but for the service. After the
last of the machines micro-filtered detergent has been dispensed,
the appliance would be serviced or replaced, and its valuable materials
would enter the technical metabolism to be used again in new machines.
An innovative commercial venture might focus on providing a community
laundry service. Laundry could be picked up from customers in a
community vehicle and delivered to one location, where washing machines
would run on the power of the sun and wastewater would be purified
by a system of botanical gardens. The service might even provide
a social venue where those who chose to wash their own clothes could
relax in a pleasant courtyard among the gardens flowering
plants. Washing clothes, long considered environmentally unfriendly,
suddenly begins to generate community wealth.
A Hopeful Agenda
When companies adopt an eco-effective strategy and engage in meeting
customers needs with a broadly conceived, positive agenda,
they are charting a course that departs from the conventional notion
of sustainability or efficiency. Sustainability, after all, is merely
a minimum precondition of survivalhardly an enticing prospect.
Indeed, if minimizing the human impact on the world through ever
more efficient design guided our vision, it would be difficult to
imagine a hopeful future.
If, for example, the U.S. embraced efficiency and dramatically cut
energy consumption and waste production down to current European
levels, it would not forestall destruction nor significantly shrink
our ecological footprint. The kinds of efficiencies required to
sustain the current industrial system would have to be much more
draconian, like cutting the population by 75 percent. In such a
world, celebrations of abundance, cultural diversity and the lives
of our children could only be muted, at best.
But what if we sought a bigger ecological footprint? Materials and
products designed as nutrients can actually make humanity a regenerative
force. Industrial sites can restore landscapes and invite the return
of native species. Buildings can purify water and create more energy
than they consume. Nutritious material flows, while supporting life
systems, can provide more people with more of what they need and
Innovative companies already pursuing these strategies are finding
their way by listening to signals from outside the company itselfsignals
in the community, the environment and the world at large. They are
staying on track by allowing a few basic principles to guide their
Signal Your IntentionCommit to a new paradigm
rather than to an incremental improvement of the old. The eco-effective
strategy takes into account that we are not in a perfect world;
we are all, in some ways, in transition. But successful ventures,
such as the carpet industrys adoption of a system for the
retrieval and reuse of floor covering materials, are showing that
embracing real innovation within the context of todays market
is not only possible, its the key to a prosperous future.
RestoreStrive for good growth, not
just economic growth. Innovation allows a company to examine how
it might generate community wealth or restore natural systems as
it continues to serve its customers. Ford Motor Co., for example,
has embarked on the long-term restoration of its historic Rouge
River site. Its new assembly plant will feature a roof covered with
growing plantsa living roofthat filters storm water
runoff in concert with porous paving and a series of wetlands and
swales. Replacing the expensive technical controls called for by
new regulations, these measures stand to save Ford up to $35 million
while purifying the waters flowing into the Rouge.
Feed ForwardPerfecting an existing product is
not necessarily a good investment. Maybe its time to create
a new niche. Currently, many designers are productively engaged
in developing safe dyes for fabric. But what if dye were obsolete?
We looked to birds for guidance on that question and learned that
the brilliance of avian plumage is a prismatic effect; birds
feathers are essentially clear and reflect different parts of the
spectrum. Imagine polymers designed in various crystalline shapes
shimmering with color. Imagine light replacing chemicals in the
Prepare for the Learning CurveRecognize that
change is difficult, messy and time consuming. Nike is currently
working on a number of initiatives, such as designing shoe materials
for true recycling, which will take time to come to fruition. The
company is well aware that innovation typically has a success rate
of about 10 to 15 percent, so it is initiating many pilot programs
to understand the dynamics of its future product take-back program.
But still, the company presses on. As Nikes Darcy Winslow
says, This is not about compliance, its about leadership.
Celebrate Your LegacyUnderstand and celebrate
the far-reaching impact of your creative acts. Design can create
effects from the molecule to the region, influencing everything
from soil chemistry to the well-being of workers in a sunlit factory.
Educator David Orr has pointed out that the design of buildings
teaches us about our worldhow we use resources, how we relate
to natureand hes embraced his legacy as a teacher by
working with us to conceive a truly innovative university building,
a building that is like a tree.
Using nature as a model for design, the building accrues solar income,
purifies water, provides habitat for native species and offers a
generation of students an opportunity to develop a deep relationship
with the natural world.
Accept Intergenerational ResponsibilityOrrs
legacy answers the questions posed by our final principle. How can
we support the rights of all living things to share in the worlds
abundance? How can we love all children of all species for all time?
A building that nourishes its surroundings and the minds of those
who inhabit it is a step in the right direction. As Orr told green@work,
The X generation doesnt see much hope in the world.
I wanted to give them a sense of hope and the competence to act
on that hope. This building gives them possibilities, not just wishful
Theres no better way to describe the true intention of innovative
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.