As companies begin to view their business practices through the lens of sustainability, some of the first questions to arise include:
- Where do we focus our limited time and resources to maximize environmental and social benefits?
- How do we measure the environmental impacts associated with our products?
The variety of approaches to these basic questions is staggering, and can sometimes paralyze your efforts. For example- should you follow a rating system or seek third-party certification? Establish an environmental management system? Develop a carbon footprint?
The answer will depend on what your objectives are. In our experience, focusing on your product line is an excellent place to start your sustainability “data collection,” as it will directly tie your sustainability initiatives to your primary business drivers. The outcome of such research can lead to innovations in product design and development, operational efficiency and resource conservation, and market positioning through re-branding your product as a smart and “eco-efficient” alternative to your competition.
Starting with your products also means that you are working with what you know best- the processes you use to transform your supplies into a useful and essential good for your customers. Placing a sustainability spin to your existing processes opens the door for employee involvement. Corporations who embrace this concept and are willing to engage their staff have demonstrated over and over again that those employees with the most intimate knowledge of daily production processes have a wealth of ideas which lead to cost savings, efficiency improvements, and product transformation. To see examples of this, check out Dow Chemical’s energy efficiency program, where employee-submitted projects have saved over $500 million and over 400,000 metric tones of CO2 emissions.
So how exactly does one begin to make this transformation? One strategy which we’ve found to be successful is to conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA) on one of your key products. LCA, also called “cradle-to-grave” analysis takes a comprehensive view of a given product, to examine environmental impacts from raw materials extraction, through manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use phase, and end-of-life/ disposal:
The LCA field has its roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the oil crisis was front-and-center and the tension between population growth and material and energy use was revealed in groundbreaking works such as “Limits to Growth.” Companies including Coca-Cola began to commission studies to inform manufacturing choices, such as comparing different beverage containers to see which has the least environmental and energy impacts associated with it.
Since those days, LCA has evolved into a sophisticated science which uses a multitude of data inputs and analyses to identify environmental impacts, scale them, weigh them, and combine them into an overall environmental profile for a given product. Oftentimes, assumptions must be taken and judgment calls made, since there may be missing information. Take the example of a laptop computer- do you know how much silicon is in a given circuit board? How about aluminum? Copper? Where are these raw materials sourced and how are they made into the integrated components you use in your manufacturing? Similarly, LCAs offer different weighting schemes to compare across broad categories of environmental impacts. What is more important- climate change or water resource degradation? Human exposure to toxins or natural resource depletion? These underlying assumptions and the flexibility in how an LCA is scoped have led to numerous criticisms of past LCA studies, which question the scientific rigor and balance used in the assessment.
Companies which want to participate in this arena in a credible way can overcome these potential pitfalls by employing standardized methods (ISCO14040) while balancing the level of effort to obtain meaningful results that can directly influence internal decisions on product design and manufacturing. In order to do this, one should apply the “80-20 rule” when developing the scope of the LCA. The 80-20 rule is a rule-of-thumb in business where we tend to see 80% of a given impact attributed to 20% of the causes. In terms of an LCA, this could be done by surveying the various phases of the life cycle to estimate the greatest impact, and coupling that with working knowledge of sustainability “hot-spots” so that you can identify the materials or processes which incur the highest environmental damages. From there, one can dive deeper into those pivotal areas of concern and begin to research alternative approaches. In order to do this properly, we recommend developing a close partnership between internal production and manufacturing staff and scientific advisors who are well-versed in life cycle impact assessment categories and the emerging areas of global environmental concern. Such a partnership can produce quick and efficient results which will have immediate benefits for your corporate bottom line and dually “stand up” to external criticism by providing a strong scientifically-based foundation.