William McDonough's work for DesignTex Inc., a contract fabric manufacturer and a subsidiary of Steelcase Inc., offers a model of his design principles at work.
Design a totally organic, environmentally safe fabric that could be produced on a commercial scale and priced competitively. DesignTex's original suggestion to McDonough: Make the fabric from cotton and recycled plastic (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET). Such a blend would be environmentally correct - right?
Wrong! In McDonough's system of organic and technical metabolisms, that "monstrous hybrid" would fit into neither category. "Cotton is responsible for about 25% of the world's pesticide use," he says. "Fabric made from PET contains antioxidants, UV stabilizers, and plasticizers - not the kind of stuff that belongs next to human skin."
McDonough selected ramie, a linen-like fabric made from an organically grown weed, along with wool from sheep in New Zealand. All materials underwent careful inspection - from the soap used to wash the wool to the lubricants used on the machines. To locate "safe" chemicals, he talked with 60 chemical companies before one, Ciba-Geigy, agreed to open its books to his team. The team eliminated 7,962 textile chemicals; only 38 passed its test. "We did our entire fabric line with those 38 chemicals," says McDonough.
A fabric that won several design awards. Even better, the manufacturing process that McDonough set up in Switzerland was so elegantly designed that water inspectors thought their testing equipment was broken: The effluent - the water leaving the factory at the end of the process - was cleaner than the influent. "That's revolution," McDonough says. "That's redesign."
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.