Industrial ecology is a new approach to the industrial design of products and processes and the implementation of sustainable manufacturing strategies. It is a concept in which an industrial system is viewed not in isolation from its surrounding systems but in concert with them. Industrial ecology seeks to optimize the total materials cycle from virgin material to finished material, to component, to product, to waste product, and to ultimate disposal. To better characterize the topic, the National Academy of Sciences convened a colloquium from which were derived a number of salient contributions. This paper sets the stage for the contributions that follow and discusses how each fits into the framework of industrial ecology.