Nowadays, many consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of their everyday lives, and are increasingly starting to act accordingly. Taking shorter showers, diligently turning off the lights in empty rooms, recycling waste, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store … But environmental consciousness does not and should not stop there. When buying products, like clothes for example, most consumers still form their purchase decisions around the price, brand, personal needs, style and taste. Yet, they should also consider the environmental consequences of the item they are buying; that is its production, usage and disposal. To be concerned with the ecological footprints a product makes, in all its life stages, is known as life cycle thinking.
Imagine you’re buying a new carpet. Do you think about the way it was produced — the energy that was used, the waste that was generated or the pollution it caused — from acquiring the raw material for production, colouring, transporting all the way until the carpet came to the store? Are you thinking of what you can do to lower the environmental impact of the carpet while you’re using it, and how your decision of its disposal — whether you dump it in the trash bin or you donate it — affects its environmental cost? If you had the answers to those questions in an environmental cost tag, and you were faced with two carpets with different environmental cost tags, would that difference sway your decision?
Life cycle thinking — a sustainability perspective
If you answered with a yes, you applied life cycle thinking to your purchasing decision. Life cycle thinking goes beyond looking at just the production stage of a product’s lifetime. It takes the entire journey of a product into account; from the cradle to the grave, or if — ideally! — the product can be reused, from cradle-to-cradle.
Life cycle thinking is a holistic approach to understanding all the environmental effects that a product, system or service has on the environment. It is therefore an important perspective for establishing a responsible and sustainable production, as well as consumption. This means that both the manufacturer and the consumer must play their respective parts. Manufacturers should consider the environmental impacts of the product throughout its complete life cycle, from material extraction, manufacturing and distribution to repair, maintenance, and ultimately safe disposal or recycling. They should also think about possibilities of lowering the impact of all the transportation steps in between.
The role of consumers is equally important. A conscious consumer has a twofold responsibility, to:
- Buy consciously
Tailor purchasing decisions around the environmental impact of a product’s entire life-cycle, and so, indirectly demand a sustainable and environmental-friendly production. Buy products from companies who act sustainably. Besides the price tag, also look at the “environmental price tag” of the product and make it one of the important factors that influences your buying habits.
- Use consciously
The way you use, maintain and discard products also makes a difference. For instance, with sustainable cleaning and maintaining of carpets, you can substantially lower their environmental impact. The same can be applied to the maintenance of garments.
Life Cycle Assessment is a tool that can help you make the purchase decision
But how can you know which products cause the least environmental damage? There is still the problem of too many eco-labels, spanning across different industries. Because of the confusion, it is often hard for consumers even to understand, let alone trust that the claims on the labels are substantiated.
The tool which helps assessing the environmental impact of products over entire life cycle, is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA is a methodological tool to assess environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle, or a part of the life cycle. With a standardized set of steps, LCA looks at all aspects of the product’s journey, including material extraction and use, manufacturing, transportation, use of external resources (such as energy or water), and even reuse, recycling and waste handling. The European commission decided that the LCA is currently the best framework for evaluating environmental impacts of products. Therefore, LCA forms a basis for a trustworthy and comparable eco-labelling. The methodology follows the International Standards ISO 14040/44, which sets its framework and methodological requirements.
LCA is a tool primarily for companies that want to optimize their operations in a way in which they minimize the environmental impacts. For example, with the help of Life Cycle Engineering’s analysis, we have learned that most of the environmental damage in nylon production came from the extraction of raw materials for making nylon yarn. This led us to develop the ECONYL® Regeneration System, which replaced fossil raw materials with waste products, such as discarded fishing nets and carpets. The environmental price tag of an ECONYL® yarn-made carpet is thus much lower than one made with nylon from crude oil.
What should consumers know about Life Cycle Assessment?
However, the LCA concept is not just for companies; consumers should know about it, too. Not the complex calculations behind it, but knowing what it means and understanding the overall environmental impacts over life cycle. We asked Assunta Filareto, an environmental engineer at Life Cycle Engineering — a consulting company that provides independent analyses of products’ life cycles — for a simplified explanation of LCA. She sums up the crux of life cycle thinking with an example of an everyday object, a pair of jeans:
“The life cycle of the pair of jeans does not start with production, but with the cultivation of cotton, the main ingredient. What were the environmental impacts at this stage? How much water was used? How much fertilizer? Similarly, we must follow the entire supply chain after cotton cultivation; the fabric manufacturing, colouring, packing for transport and transportation between all locations. How consumers use the product also causes very different environmental impacts. How often do they wash the product, at what temperature? How many years do they wear the jeans until they discard them? What happens then? Can they be recycled? How and at what quality? And these are just a few questions that an analysis of life cycle approach pushes you to ask. It’s a new approach that invites both companies and consumers to a higher level of responsibility toward the products and services they use.”
The complex analysis can take into account greenhouse gas emissions, toxicity, acidification and other potential damages to the environment. It is quantified and reliable, and thus can be used by environmentally conscious consumers to choose products from environmentally responsible companies.
Where can consumers find the information of the environmental impact of products? The best way is to look for Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), a document which communicates the product’s environmental impact, based on LCA. Assunta explains, “the EPD is a sort of an identity card of the environmental performance of the product. It is a voluntary communication tool, the contents of which are based on the LCA results of the product. This means you cannot achieve EPD without first having made an LCA. The EPD is one of three voluntary environmental labels that a product can have.” The EPD is also independently certified by an approved third party verifier, and so, it provides a transparent and factual way of communicating the environmental aspects of a product.
A shift from linear to circular thinking
Life cycle thinking enables the cradle-to-cradle approach, or what is also called a closed loop production system. Basically, this is a production process in which waste is gathered, recycled and used as material for new products. This goes beyond recycling. It means a creation of a sustainable supply chain network, for the success of which the consumers and manufacturers must work together. It represents a change from a linear (where products have a start and the end) to a circular economy. LCA is closely linked to the system of circular economy, as Assunta explains:
“The analysis of the life cycle is useful to calculate the benefits of a circular economy. The goal of circular economy is to optimize the resources by designing the products with the ‘end of their life’ in mind; therefore including, for example, their recovery instead of their pure landfill disposal. The linear system, in contrast, involves the removal of resources from nature and their transformation into products regardless of their fate at the end of life (when they are most often disposed of in landfills). This is no longer possible for two reasons: on the one side, due to the huge bulk of waste that is produced and on the other due to the depletion of resources that are constantly taken from nature.
The circular economy is a possible solution to the problem because it conserves resources, contains consumption and forces you to think differently, thus minimizing the impact on the planet.”
The shift in our collective mindset from linear to circular thinking is the key to saving our planet. We must all contribute — every environmentally conscious action counts, from the individual consumer, manufacturers and businesses, to environmental regulations and initiatives of transnational alliances. Tools and evaluation systems like the LCA and declarations like the EPD provide us with the needed information, but in the end, they only carry as much weight as the consideration we give them.