The Five Goods

by William McDonough

Many companies are doing good work to reduce their negative impact on resources and workers, but often through a narrow perspective focused on piecemeal improvements. They improve transparency and traceability, and make some processes more efficient, but pay little attention to their heavy use of toxic chemicals. They develop complex recycling for hybrid materials, rather than redesign the product and delivery for full-value recycling. These efforts all focus on minimizing short-term damage, which is certainly important. But it can be done better by eliminating problems altogether with designs that optimize long-term gains.

To get there, companies need to address their overall processes and question their assumptions. They’re used to doing things a certain way and believing they can make a difference by working only at the margins.

What if companies built sustainability into the very design of their products and production processes? No longer would they design products to meet cost, appearance, and functional requirements, and only later work to mitigate the harms from those choices. They could even go from a linear design for disposal to a design for continual use and reuse. They could focus on generating positive impact, not on reducing negative impact. When it comes to sustainability, they could create “more good” instead of simply being “less bad.”

The Five Goods concept, based on Cradle to Cradle(R) and described below, will help companies to focus, funnel and evaluate their efforts along those categories, while enabling the users to innovate and scale their efforts.

The Five Goods:

Good Materials_The Five Goods
Good materials. Ideally, everything that went into a product would be beneficial not just for the product itself, but also for human and ecological health. Companies wouldn’t have to work at reducing harmful inputs because they wouldn’t include those inputs to begin with.

Good Economy_The Five Goods
Good economy. When companies finish using or reusing a product, they would ideally break it up into valued resources flowing in a continuous loop of natural and human activity. Nothing would get wasted.

Good Energy_The Five Goods
Good energy. The goal here is to rely on energy that sustain resources rather than consumes them or endangers people. Instead of fossil fuels that take carbon from the ground and release it into the atmosphere, or nuclear power that generates harmful byproducts, companies can use renewable sources that leave the world as well endowed as before.

Good Water_The Five Goods
Good water. Here the aspiration is a process that leaves water supplies as good as or better than they were when production started, ideally at drinking water quality. Each process stage would use only readily available water, and leave that water so clean that it can be continually reused within the factory or released for the benefit of the surrounding community or ecosystem.

Good lives. We’d like our economy to be good not just in the materials, but also in how it treats the people who make it function. Ideally it would promote individual human dignity, with safe working conditions and accommodation for family living circumstances. It would also promote fairness, so groups of laborers or suppliers aren’t exploited with dangerously low wages or prices along the entire value chain.

When companies start from a Five Goods mindset, they can design their products and processes upfront to promote holistic goodness. They’ll see everything as a resource for something else, and they’ll aim to apply those resources effectively rather than combining them in toxic ways or losing them to waste. This approach goes well beyond supply chain management to promote fundamental and continuous improvement. It prompts companies to get out of their usual frames of reference and imagine much better ways of working.