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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2003 : New Perspectives

New Perspectives

Intelligent Materials Pooling
Evolving a profitable technical metabolism through a supportive business community.

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

In a cradle-to-cradle business, every product is designed to provide a wide spectrum of assets. After a useful life as a healthful product that generates economic, ecological and cultural value, cradle-to-cradle materials either replenish the earth with biodegradable matter or supply high-quality technical resources for the next generation of products. When materials are created specifically for use within these closed-loop cycles—the flow of biological materials through nature’s cycles of growth, decay and rebirth, and the circulation of industrial materials from producer to customer to producer—businesses can realize both enormous short-term growth and enduring prosperity.

The key to optimizing the assets of cradle-to-cradle materials lies in the intelligent management of material flows. After eons of evolution, Nature is well equipped to effectively manage the nutrient cycles of the biological metabolism. Though 4,000 years of agriculture suggest that we are hardwired to fashion tools that allow us to participate in those natural cycles, human tools themselves—our technologies and synthetic materials—are part of a separate technical metabolism that can only be managed by human design.

To effectively manage the flows of polymers, rare minerals and high-tech materials for industry, we’ve developed a nutrient management system for the technical metabolism. This system, our concept of Intelligent Materials Pooling, calls for cooperative business networks geared to optimizing the value of cradle-to-cradle materials.

In an intelligent materials pool multiple companies share access to a common supply of a particular high-quality material, such as nylon 6 or pure copper. As partners draw materials from the pool to create new products, they also replenish it with materials they have recovered from their customers after a defined period of use. Sharing resources and knowledge, information and purchasing power, partners in a materials pool ideally develop a shared commitment to generating a healthy system of material flows and to using the healthiest, highest quality technical ingredients in all of their products. Together they form a values-based business community focused not only on eliminating the concept of waste from manufacturing cycles, but on celebrating the ecological, cultural and economic richness of the material world.

Origins: Salmon Pools, Material Pools and Supportive Business Communities

While Nature provides the model for closed-loop material flows, so, too, does it offer metaphors for the rich relationships that grow out of Intelligent Materials Pooling. Surprising as it might seem, an Icelandic salmon pool is one of them. We realized this while standing hip-deep in a cold river in northeastern Iceland with our friends and colleagues Darcy Winslow (Nike’s Director of Women’s Footwear), Keith Winn (Herman Miller’s Advanced Project Manager at the time and now principal of Catalyst Partners) and Ed Guerrini (BASF/Honeywell’s Director of Innovative Business Solutions). We’d gathered in Iceland to talk about our shared hopes for the future and we’d discovered that fly-fishing offered peaceful moments to reflect together on our relationship to all the resources that make our lives possible.

Most of us had come to Iceland from the U.S. where Atlantic salmon populations have been decimated. Just seeing the fish in the pools of the Sela River was a delight, but we also wanted to participate in the local traditions. Icelanders love to fish, and they also believe that the salmon belong to the rivers. So we took up our fly-rods and fished like Icelanders: standing in pairs, side-by-side in the river, one of us would cast, catch a fish, and then carefully tag its dorsal fin for scientific research on salmon life-cycles. Once released, the fish would dart away, joining a dozen healthy salmon at the bottom of the river.

This was a rich and rewarding experience. Not only were we participating in an age-old cultural relationship with Atlantic salmon, and supporting salmon protection in the process, we were also discovering a new way of thinking about our material resources. Just as Atlantic salmon belong to the rivers, we can also see the world’s other rare, valuable resources as belonging to the global commons; they’re shared blessings that we are called upon to use with intelligence and wisdom.

The wisdom actually comes from using our resources and sharing them with others. After Darcy Winslow caught and released a fish, for example, she would hand the rod to Ed Guerrini, who had an equal or better chance of catching one—there were still a dozen salmon in the pool, and Darcy’s tips on casting technique and choice of fly had given him an added edge.Our concept of Intelligent Materials Pooling works the same way. It sees the world’s resources as a shared blessing. Just as catching and eating all the salmon we could at this point in history would likely end their time on Earth, discarding once-used mineral resources also mortgages the future. Understanding that this is simply a matter of bad design, partners in an intelligent materials pool work together in a supportive business community, pooling resources to generate material intelligence and profitable cradle-to-cradle material flows. They wouldn’t compete to catch all the salmon; they’d release them back into the pool and share information and success.

The evolution of an intelligent materials pool follows the same steps as almost any kind of community or nation building: The community decides what it does not want; it chooses what it does want; its members support each other against those who endanger the community; a culture bound by shared values forms. The result: a life support system for sustainable commerce; a community supported by, and committed to, intelligent design.

From a strategic perspective, the process begins with an agreement to phase out an environmentally dangerous material, such as PVC, common to a number of companies. Out of this shared commitment to intelligent design comes a community of companies with the market strength to effectively engineer the phase-out and develop innovative alternative materials. Together, they specify for preferred materials, establish defined-use periods for products and services, and create an intelligent materials bank from which each partner deposits and withdraws. This business support system gives companies the strength and know-how to make material flows management an ongoing harvest of cradle-to-cradle assets rather than an endless exercise in managing cradle-to-grave liabilities.

A Practical Vision

What would this look like in practice? Imagine if Nike, Herman Miller and BASF created a materials pool and shared access to high-quality nylon. Nike and Herman Miller would enjoy the cost savings generated by their ability to generate purchases in larger volumes than either company could generate alone, while BASF, the nylon manufacturer and bank, would be supported in its efforts to develop innovative, ecologically intelligent polymers. Nike and Herman Miller would also be able to depend on the high quality of the nylon circulating through the pool and use it for a variety of new purposes as they learned about its qualities. The more the material is used, the more information is gained and shared, which would optimize its processing, recovery and re-use. With mutual support, the companies could begin co-branding, creating a strong, shared identity built on a new vision of quality, which in turn would generate a strong and valuable market identity.

In this scenario, the information about the material becomes as important as the material itself, making the distinction between the old and new economy obsolete. BASF would, in effect, become a high-tech communications company, materializing information. That is, it would provide material intelligence as it gained technical information from processing and reprocessing a material over time. Rather than downcycling a material for use in a product of lesser value, BASF would be upcycling, adding value and information to a material as it cycled through the bank. Together, the companies could create an ecologically intelligent culture of innovation.

Creating Material Pools with Industrial Partners
While Nike, BASF and Herman Miller are the pioneers in the consideration of Intelligent Materials Pooling, companies from a variety of manufacturing sectors could collaborate to create material banks for nearly every valuable commodity, from chemicals to steel to advanced polymers.

Companies can begin to benefit from Intelligent Materials Pooling by following a step-by-step, community-building process. As we have seen, the process follows the same steps as almost any kind of community building: as members find common cause and provide support for one another, the separate elements of the community begin to gel, forming a shared identity grounded in mutual trust.

The key steps in the development of a community of shared values bear repeating: the community decides what it does not want; it chooses what it does want; its members support each other against those who endanger the community; a culture bound by shared values forms.

From an industrial design perspective, the community would come together out of a mutual interest in the values of cradle-to-cradle thinking—eco-effectiveness, eliminating the concept of waste, celebrating abundance, supporting life—and the steps and principles of MBDC’s Cradle to Cradle protocol, which would provide partners with the practical tools for success. The process might look something like this:

Phase 1: Creating Community

* Identify shared values: Cradle to Cradle Design; eliminating the
concept of waste
* Identify willing industrial partners
* Target specific toxic chemicals for replacement

Phase 2: Utilizing Market Strength

* Share list of materials targeted
for phase out
* Develop a positive purchasing and
procurement list of preferred
intelligent chemicals

Phase 3: Defining Material Flows
* Specify for and design with preferred materials
* Define use periods for products and services
* Create a materials bank
* Design a technical metabolism for preferred materials

Phase 4: Ongoing Support
* Create preferred business partner agreements among members
* Share information gained from
material use and research
* Develop co-branding strategies
* Support the mechanisms of the
technical metabolism

Finding willing partners might be hard to imagine in the competitive world of business, but it is hardly unprecedented. In the textile industry, innovative mills like Victor Innovatex and Rohner Textil, along with MBDC and The DesignTex Group, have profitably collaborated on the design and production of ecologically intelligent fabrics. In the textile and apparel industry at large, several companies we have worked with have expressed deep interest in joining together to create a “polyester coalition.” With the technology for truly recycling polyester in development, a polyester collective could begin to close the loop on the flow of this widely used industrial material.

An Intelligent Polyester Pool, an Intelligent Steel Pool

Here’s how a polyester cooperative might work: Willing partners would first agree on their shared commitment to product quality. Though partners might represent different industries and perspectives, they would be bound by common values. As with all new communities, a polyester pool would have to develop a framework of governance to set up the standards and protocols of working together. One could imagine the process as a kind of nation building and the framework as a constitution that outlines the rights and responsibilities of all partners, which all would agree to in a spirit of mutual trust. This exercise in community building would lay the foundation for future work.

With common ground established, the coalition partners would begin to create a list of specific chemicals used in the manufacture of polyester that are widely known to be harmful. These would be targeted for phase-out. Participating companies would then generate a list of preferred intelligent materials—the ingredients they would ultimately like to use to create an ecologically intelligent polyester. Victor Innovatex, with MBDC, is already developing such a material.

After developing common specifications for intelligent polyester, the members of the coalition would begin to specify it as a product ingredient. With the power of its pooled market, the coalition could approach polyester producers and invite them to become partners. Ideally, the producers would be equipped with chemical recycling systems, which would effectively allow them to become polyester banks. The coalition would agree to purchase all of its polyester from the producers, and the producers would agree to manufacture intelligent polyester and take back and recycle all of the materials the coalition returned. The companies would define the use periods for their products and individually set up take back programs to replenish the material bank. A polyester loop would be effectively closed, eliminating waste from the technical metabolism of the coalition.

This process could be widely applied. In the steel industry, for example, value is often lost when a range of grades are mixed in recycling. A materials pool could preserve the value of steel over many lifecycles by specifying the separation of different grades in the technical metabolism. Rare, valuable constituent elements such as chromium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and copper could also be preserved and reused at the highest level of quality. When high-quality steel is recycled with high-quality steel, the metal retains its structural integrity. With cooperation between steel-makers and the manufacturers of a wide variety of products, from automobiles to trains to refrigerators, the steel loop could begin to be closed and the value of its nutrients preserved over time.

Products of Service: Seeding Material Pools

Some companies have already begun to develop material pools with our product of service concept; they sell the service a product provides rather than the product itself. Carpet companies, for example, lease to their customers the service of floor covering. When the carpet wears out, the carpet is retrieved by the manufacturer and its materials are reused in new carpets.

Shaw Industries now guarantees that all of its nylon 6 carpet fiber will be returned to nylon 6 fiber, and its safe, polyolefin backing returned to safe, polyolefin backing. Raw material to raw material. No compromises. This strategy can be applied to any product: Car makers can provide the service of mobility; washing machine manufacturers can provide the service of clean clothes; computer distributors can provide the service of information and instant contact with the world, and so on.

Providing a service rather than a product has many benefits. First, it seeds the development of material pools. Companies maintain ownership of their materials while profiting from the services they offer. When the product is returned, its ingredients, if intelligently designed, can be used again in new products. Designing for recovery and reuse also gives companies the opportunity to specify high-quality materials—they will never lose their investment—and to design products with built in flexibility. Products designed for disassembly, for example, might contain high-tech parts that can be easily re-used in the next generation of evolving high-tech machinery. All of this, of course, results in the intelligent and effective use of valuable materials.

A Promising Future

Products of service are already a part of the industrial landscape, seeding material pools in evolving industries. Hints of business-to-business cooperation are also emerging as innovative companies explore the future of intelligent materials. There are, perhaps, many success stories on the horizon. To be truly successful on a large scale, however, material banks will have to be adopted throughout industry. Closing the loop on material flows is the key to intelligent design and regenerative commerce. When industrial systems accrue value with healthy products, we can all celebrate human productivity and ingenuity rather than lamenting our impact on the world. As we move toward this goal with positive aspirations, modeling industry on the elegant designs of the natural world, we can begin to create the intelligent products and intelligent support systems that will allow both business and nature to thrive and grow.

In such a world, we might be able to look forward to the return of the Atlantic salmon. We could watch them in the spring, swimming and gathering in riffling pools in the millions, taking pleasure in their numbers, celebrating their abundance, and blessing their presence as they bless ours.
Ask not “How much can I get for how little I give?” but instead, “How much can we give for all that we get?”

By William McDonough

New concepts like Intelligent Materials Pooling suggest we are living in a propitious moment for business strategies that celebrate the abundance of the natural world rather than bemoan its limits. Indeed,
a host of hugely successful projects generating environmental and
commercial health signal the transformation of the principles of
economic life. In some imaginations, the passing of the old rules is
cause for fear; in others it represents an exciting opportunity to develop new models of enterprise in tune with what the world needs today.

Nothing means quite what it used to mean. In the world of sustainable business, environmental regulations have been seen as drivers of design innovations that produce profitable solutions and competitive advantage. But what if competition and success were defined not by how well a business meets regulations, but by how generously it enhances social, ecological and economic well being?

This transforms our notion of value. Value has conventionally been perceived as being generated by asking “How much can I get for how little I give?” But when value is seen as growing with the increase of social health, the question is turned on its head. We are called to ask not “How much can I get for how little I give?” but instead, “How much can we give for all that we get?”

The new Green Blue Institute (GBI), an emerging non-profit, grows from this question. It will offer the cradle-to-cradle framework and strategy free to everyone to help make intelligent design commonplace. It will promote enterprises designed to foster good growth and genuine value, supporting projects that bring hearing aids to children and restore eyesight to the elderly—virtually for free. Other GBI social ventures might generate flourishing ecosystems and prosperous
farms, or factories designed to be not simply boxes full of tools, but life-affirming places that create habitat, filter water and provide safe, pleasant and productive work environments—all cost effectively.

The idea is good growth for all. Instead of reducing our environmental footprint, we grow it, leaving behind wetlands, fertile farmland, nutrition, clean water, and restored landscapes. This pursuit can be integrated into conventional business strategy. “How much can we give for all we get?” is what Michael Braungart and I call a Triple Top Line design question. Rather than measuring at the bottom line the reduction of liabilities, triple top line thinking pursues design solutions that enhance value: more social revenue, more ecological revenue, more economic revenue—more good growth.

“How much can we give for all we get?” It’s a question with transforming power. Used as a tool to drive the design of new ventures and enterprises it can generate a dynamic field of economic inquiry and a rich, fulfilling arena for business growth.

William McDonough’s keynote speech on Friday, May 2, during EnvironDesign®7, will address the business opportunities generated by asking not, “How much can I get for how little I give,” but instead “How much can we give for what we get.” He will explore the social, economic and ecological implications of this sea change as it is manifest in the design of materials, products, buildings, and communities, as well as energy, communication and transportation systems.

William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective design and commerce strategies. For more information, visit

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