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Life Cycle Assessment

Sustainability with both eyes open

Written by: Jessica Wright

Sustainability returns value to organizations of all types. A sustainability assessment can reduce costs and minimize waste. It also bring market advantage. A recent survey found that 88% of respondents preferred brands that helped them, as consumers, to be more environmentally friendly. Greater sustainability can bring the benefits of  improved environmental management to manufacturers as well as other types of businesses and entire communities.

Stages of a Full Life Cycle

The Product Perspective

The concerns that manufacturers have about their brand and product sustainability are not new. Twenty years ago, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) documented a strategy to include environmental costs in a product market price. That pricing strategy, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), considers the full life cycle. A full life cycle begins with product design, continues through manufacturing, distribution, use, and end of life.

Several factors impact the environmental sustainability of businesses and the products or services they provide. Some factors will impact multiple life cycle stages. These examples are relevant to a business organization:

  • What features of the organization’s facilities ensure healthy workplaces?
  • How much energy is used in production and other operations? What types of energy are used?
  • Which materials does the organization use, and where they are sourced?
  • What waste products occur?
  • How much potable and reclaimed water is used inside and outside the organization’s buildings?

Sustainable Operations

Business operations of all types leave carbon footprints. Even service organizations that never manufacture have environmental impact. That makes sustainability relevant to every office of every building. Day-to-day commercial activity leaves deeper carbon footprints and more wasted resources when concerns like these are overlooked:

  • How much energy is being used, and what are its sources?
  • What policies and equipment are in place to avoid wasted water?
  • How are maintenance costs monitored and controlled?
  • What are the organization’s policies for Solid Waste Management (SWM)?

Considering the Community

Communities share some environmental impact factors with businesses, but have additional, non-commercial reasons to seek sustainability. Community leaders may focus on initiatives that boost economic, physical, and social progress. Those initiatives also avoid environmental and public health risks that could undermine community development. As civic leaders weigh initiatives, environmental impact factors like these may apply:

  • How would converting partially or fully to renewable energy sources impact homes, businesses, and public utility infrastructure?
  • What would result if street and lighting improvements made cycling and walking better alternatives to petroleum-powered commuting?
  • As public transportation is upgraded and expanded, which types of fuel should those vehicles use?
Life Cycle Assessment Phases
ISO 14040: Environmental Management – Life Cycle Assessment

The relevant environmental impact factors and life cycle stages will vary from product to product and service to service. To control complexity and cost, goals must be set as the scope is well-defined. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) addresses all of that in the first of four interrelated phases.

ISO 14040 provides a framework to measure the total environmental impacts of products, operations, and public works. A full LCA assesses environmental impacts through all stages of the supply chain. The cycle begins with extraction of raw materials and through manufacturing through the applicable SWM strategies.

SOURCES: — A Guide to Life Cycle Thinking — US EPA Life Cycle Assessment: Principles and Practice (.PDF) — Why Corporate Strategies Should Be Focused On Sustainability