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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2001 : Reinventing Step Four

Feature Story
Reinventing the World: Step Four

The Active Positive List will make a product
actively “good” rather than “less bad,” thus taking
it as far into the eco-effective realm as it can go.

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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.” This article examines “active positives” before the last installment gives specific steps to take for reinvention.

We now come to Step Four in the series we have been describing: the Active Positive List. As you may recall, we have discussed the “Free of . . .,” Personal Preference (with scientific experience) and Passive Positive List steps. With Step Four, we reach the point where a product becomes truly eco-effective, achieving a paradigm shift that is the crux of reinventing the world. Here, the overall goal is to make a product actively “good” rather than “less bad”—to take it as far into the eco-effective realm as it can go, within the existing framework.

This step is particularly delightful because it is founded on the idea of nutrients: every element of a product is conceived of as a nutrient—as nourishing, enriching “food” for either biological cycles (the systems of nature) or technical cycles (the systems of industry). Step Four cannot exist without a clear definition of whether a product and its ingredients can be biological and technical nutrients—each ingredient of the product “recipe” is fully defined. But it doesn’t stop there. With Step Four, we actively and positively define the effects of that product on the world.

Perfection (or Near-perfection) Within the Existing Framework

To return to our food analogy, imagine you have made a soup that turns out far too spicy for your tongue—too much garlic, onions and pepper. If you make that soup again, using the same recipe, you would remove the offending vegetables and herbs to avoid that unappetizing taste, wouldn’t you?

In Step Three, the Passive Positive List, the most irritating chemicals from a product “recipe” are identified and removed. We examine ingredients and categorize them according to A (ideal), B (principally ideal), C (problematic, but not a critical urgency) and X (urgent removal). At this point, we are most concerned with removing X-listed items and finding safe replacements (this is important; some “dangerous” elements removed from products to be replaced with ones that are equally harmful). Step Three might, in fact, make a product free of hundreds of items, instead of just one.

How does this lead to Step Four? Let’s return to the soup example. You have decided you will make a soup for dinner, but instead of just removing a few things that you don’t favor or that may be irritating to your guests, you review all of the ingredients in the soup, distinguishing between those that you like and want to leave in and those that are unsavory or unnecessary. With pleasure and a joyful outcome in mind, you fine-tune the soup ingredients to suit your needs and desires (and those of your dinner guests). At the market you purchase everything—herbs, vegetables, meats, oils, spices and herbs—of the best quality possible with your selection criteria of “Free of . . .” and Personal Preferences in mind. Your role is not limited to simply selecting ingredients (which, in this case, might be organic vegetables and spices, free-range chicken or kosher meats), but also with the preparation of the entire meal: you work in partnership with the cook to make sure the soup becomes the best “soup” it can be, adding herbs for more flavor, tasting it as you go along, until perfection is reached. In this sense, you are the director of the process, defining what the ingredients are and where they come from. You have actively defined what will be in the soup and how it will be prepared—this is a soup you want in the world.

How to Cook a Car

Translate this to a product example: Let’s say a client asks us to work with them on creating an Active Positive List for a car. We learn everything about the ingredients and the manufacture of the car. We choose materials that will return to biological and technical cycles safely and prosperously. We might, for example, pick substances for brake pads and rubber for tires that can be products of consumption (they can abrade into nature safely) and fabrics for seating that are “edible” upholstery and can be safely taken up by the mouth and nose when they abrade due to shifting in the seat. We would make sure valuable technical materials like steel and plastic are defined as technical “nutrients” to be circulated in industrial cycles and that the car is designed for disassembly. (All of which, by the way, we are currently working on.)

We think these are vast improvements on the current paradigm of “car.” But even so, consider the limitations. In this case, the design assignment is not, “I need transportation of some kind,” but, “I need a car.” The product, whatever it is, is perfected within the existing framework; not, for example, “Hmmm. What about a new form of transportation? What would that look like?”—although you may indeed have this question in the back of your mind as you face the limitations of what you are able to accomplish today.

So, this Step Four car is composed of materials designed to be technical or biological nutrients. It will not become useless detritus down the road. And yet . . . it is still a car. The current system of cars on widening berths of asphalt is not necessarily ideal for the world of abundance we envision. Buckminster Fuller used to joke that if extraterrestrial beings landed on the planet, at first sight they would probably think it was inhabited by cars. Certainly, individual cars can be fun, but terrible traffic jams and a world of urban surfaces covered with asphalt are not.

Communities, companies and cultures might want to reconsider this individual-vehicle-based system of mobility as the solution to transportation needs worldwide, given the larger eco-effective agenda for health, wealth and delight. In this case, re-invention might call for a different kind of transportation system—one that, in appropriate places, delivers the services that cars and trucks currently provide. (We like to dream up creative mobility systems that transport people, goods and services for entire communities with vehicles that enhance cultural, community and material richness by contributing value at every turn.)

But that is the next step. With your current soup recipe, you aren’t thinking, “Maybe my guests don’t need dinner. Maybe, since many of them have plenty of caloric intake as it is, they would like a poetry reading or a walk in the woods or a discussion of the new political administration—that would really feed their needs!” It is clear that you are making dinner for your guests. It is clear that you are producing a car, a carpet, a pair of blue jeans or whatever the targeted product may be. The first application of the Active Positive List is to existing things. The next application, which happens in Step Five, is to things that are only beginning to be envisioned or are not yet imagined. To take another product example, an eco-effective, Active Positive List shoe might consist of shoe soles designed to become biological nutrients; they abrade into safe molecules for worms and soil. The shoe “uppers” could be either biodegradable or infinitely recyclable as technical nutrients to make new shoes, or they could be what we call “up-cycled” into other products. Yet, this item, designed around nutrients, is still a conventional shoe. What about an entirely new form of footwear? If Step Five, Optimization, were the project goal, the shoe company might be imagining new ways to make packaging for feet that are quite different from the conventional idea of “shoe” currently expressed in the marketplace and which you are used to seeing and using. What that new foot packaging might be at the moment, we don’t quite know yet, but someone is probably imagining it.

Although Step Four attempts to perfect something within its existing framework, it will not necessarily result in a product that is perfect in every way. The entire industrial infrastructure at the moment is imperfect and probably will be for some time during this transitional phase. One does the best one can do. You may be able to make sure all the ingredients for your soup are organic or that a particular steel or wool for various portions of the car is derived from a source you know and trust, but you cannot, at this point in history, guarantee that these items will be transported to you or processed by way of renewable energy sources. For economic reasons, too, it is extremely important to begin redesigning materials and their uses within the existing framework. Keeping the product in production and active in the marketplace and maintaining customer demand is vital: the more customers buy, the more resources manufacturers have to pursue optimization of products.

Re-materialization (Not De-materialization)

With Step Four, you examine the entire system, perfecting what you can, defining the product positively (what goes in, not simply what gets taken out). This makes a product’s materials desirable and joyful—not things to feel guilty or “bad” about. Products of all kinds are either consumption products (they are literally “consumed” by nature), service products (their technical materials return to industries, while the “service” of them is purchased) or hybrids (some materials, such as polymers that we are developing, can return safely to both soil and industries).

We are not concerned with de-materialization, as many efficiency converts are. Today, if you are buying a conventional car, you might mull it over a bit first, thinking, “Do I really need to buy a car?” You might feel guilty about your role as a so-called “consumer,” especially since the current system of extraction, manufacture and disposal is flawed. With a vehicle actively defined, its materials are technical nutrients that add to a pool of value for the industry. Other materials might feed nature or be compostable. Consumption is fun.

So, think re-materialization, not de-materialization. Life is based on materials—literally. Let’s celebrate that fact.

An Active Passport

In an earlier column, we mentioned a type of polyester designed with the Passive Positive List in which certain dyes might be replaced with positively selected ones. But Step Three can only go so far—think “passive” versus “active.” With a Passive Positive List product, someone might glue a safe polyester to a chair with undefined glues and sell it without any sense of its activity in the world, making its recyclability useless. Someone might even take Climatex™, our Lifecycle fabric product, which we would consider an eco-effective product (we like to say it is the “flag” of the Next Industrial Revolution), and use it ineffectively. What if this safe, healthy fabric were glued to a plastic chair and sold, eventually ending up in a landfill? It’s an interesting dilemma. Although the fabric itself, when used for upholstery, is a useful improvement over conventional upholstery because it is edible, we would not consider this treatment of the fabric to be actively positive. Even if the chair is resold as “used,” if it is not channeled into the biological metabolism via the composting process after use that it was designed for, it is still a passive eco-effective product.

For Step Four, polyester would not just be antimony free or even considered in light of its additives, dyestuffs and so forth. We examine the entire product’s activity in the world: as part of cycles and as part of a system of delivery, recapture and reuse. All of the materials in the polyester essentially have an “active passport” attached to them: we know where they came from, and we know where they are going next. For example, the next step beyond designing a safe, healthy fabric might be to work on integrating that fabric into an entire framework of defined uses within cycles. In the future, companies will understand materials and products through their entire existence, from conception through cycles and cycles, so all materials are actively, positively engaged within a system of delivery and enjoyment—and intergenerationally so.


The Active Positive List includes the potential for what we have coined as “up-cycling”: an existing product or material—even products that are sub-optimal today—can be improved and brought into the eco-effective realm and back into the market. A conventional nylon such as Nylon 6, for example, can be up-cycled into a new product, improving its characteristics and obviating the need for coatings such as Scotchguard (pulled from the market when 3M found out it was a persistent toxin). A polymer, like the new Savant™ nylon that we are working on with BASF, can support essentially infinite recyclability; it can even be made from up-cycled existing products. There are lots of possibilities, once materials and substances are actively defined.

Cumulative Quality, Arrived at Step by Step

Moving through steps one, two and three to Step Four results in a product of cumulative quality, arrived at step by step. The experiences of making “Free of . . .” choices, Personal Preference choices and creating a Passive Positive List are all drawn upon during Step Four, a more complex undertaking than any of the others taken individually. These previous steps also help companies identify the things that are missing from the modern world—products and ingredients humans need to become eco-effective or create re-evolutions of delivery and service systems that we already use and need (such as transportation). That process of re-evolution comes next. We’ll speak more about it in our next article.

<< Part Three


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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