Consumers are becoming more concerned about sustainability and more knowledgeable about environmentally friendly products. Rather than just thinking about the initial price many customers now make their purchasing choices based on the expected life span of a product, the running and maintenance costs and its overall carbon footprint.
With increasing pressure from government and regulators many businesses are looking for ways to decrease the carbon footprint throughout the life cycle of their products or developing new products and technologies for sustainability.
Any sustainability improvements and information generated from these activities can be used in promoting your products to the ‘green’ markets.
Life cycle analysis
Life cycle analysis (LCA) can be used to identify the inputs to and outputs from a product or process, including all the steps in its production, transport, use and disposal; and then to calculate the overall environmental impact. Inputs may include, for example, the extraction, growth and processing of raw materials and consumption of energy, water and fuel. Outputs could be the consumer products, waste to landfill, heat and energy loss and particulate emissions.
This information can be used to identify how to reduce the carbon footprint of your production processes and across the life of the product.
You can decide what to analyse and how you apply a life cycle assessment to suit your goals. You may want to calculate the environmental impact of a used product that is sent to landfill and compare it to a modified product that can be recylced or remanufactured.
The depth of analysis can also vary although a life cycle assessment should calculate both direct and indirect impacts, for example:
- Direct and indirect environmental impacts from the products and processes in the growth, harvesting, processing and transport of raw materials
- Direct energy, water, fuel consumption as well as energy and heat loss calculated through energy balancing
- Emissions such as direct release of gases and particulates as well as calculation of embodied emissions using mass balancing and carbon equivalence
- The energy consumption and emissions of various methods of disposal – burning vs landfill vs composting vs reuse.
Some applications of life cycle analysis broadly align to the concepts of ‘cradle to grave’ and ‘cradle to cradle’ outlined below.
Cradle to grave
Cradle to grave is a concept that assumes a product is made, used and then disposed of. The life cycle analysis in this scenario looks at the environmental impacts of a process or product starting with the raw materials. It includes the transport of materials and products and the energy used in production as well as the resources used through the operational life of the product. It also calculates any energy used and emissions generated once it is disposed of – for example the carbon produced by decomposition of plastic over its ‘half life’.
The cradle to grave graphic above emphasises the linear nature of the process and the significant potential for wasted resources, emissions and waste to landfill.
Cradle to cradle
Cradle to cradle assumes that a product or its components are not disposed of but are used in other products and/or processes. It factors in the options for reuse, recycling, recovery and remanufacturing. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably; however they are often used for different processes:
- Reuse – using a product without change or remodeling, whether for the original or a different application
- Recovery – capturing or extracting elements of a product or process, for example, chemicals from computer parts or heat from a production process
- Recycle – processing a product or components into a changed form, usually for a different application
- Remanufacture –rebuilding a product to its original (or better) specifications; this goes beyond reconditioning or repairing to an acceptable working state.
The cradle to cradle graphic highlights the circular nature of this approach and the multiple points where more sustainable options can be implemented. Life cycle analysis in this scenario would typically show that fewer resources are used and fewer emissions generated compared to a cradle to grave product life cycle.
Sustainability product features
Many of your customers will be interested in purchasing products and services that are energy efficient or have other clear sustainability features. Sustainability features could focus on reduced carbon footprint, improved energy efficiency, lower running costs and the longevity of the product. Or they could focus on ‘clever’ features such as self monitoring, automatic switching systems or self contained energy, heating or cooling systems. Recyclable products or components, reusable products and product stewardship where you take back and remanufacture your products are also attractive sustainability features.
Research how you can improve your products or design new ones. You might use a continuous improvement scheme, suggestion box or brainstorming sessions to get input from your frontline staff as well as your designers and technicians. Or you might want to hold focus groups with customers to gain their input. They may have unique ideas based on regular use of the products. Focus groups can be a great way of connecting with consumers and demonstrating that you are listening. This in turn can improve your reputation in the community and your long term viability.
Breakthrough sustainability innovations
You might decide to focus on breakthrough innovations for sustainability products and services. This might mean using research and development projects to identify:
- Low energy low carbon materials and products
- New sources or better production of renewable energy
- New applications for existing and recycled materials
- Processes for decontaminating, remediating and rehabilitating water and soil
- Energy recovery or cogeneration systems
- Tools for measuring and calculating emissions
- Production technologies that use less energy and generate less waste.
A recent Australian project identified that it is feasible to recycle post-consumer polypropylene (PP) into raw material that can be used to make other products with little adjustment to standard production processes. The project identified a range of products with viable markets, for example, pot plant containers, compost bins, trenching products and cable reels.
There are a number of funding and incentive programs targeting areas research and development, technology innovations, renewable energy and water and energy saving innovations. These are provided by various state, federal and local governments.
Managing your performance
Product improvement and life cycle analysis have a significant impact across most aspects of sustainability, ranging from small scale product improvements to big picture technology innovations.
Things to think about include:
- Your goals, available resources and the return on investment from incremental improvements versus breakthrough innovations
- Reviewing any funding and incentive programs that might be available to identify the benefits and eligibility and contract requirements
- Measurement, costing and analysis models such as life cycle analysis, full cost analysis, lean accounting, carbon footprinting, ecological footprinting
- How to get input from your staff and customers to maximise your sustainability innovations and to support employee engagement and customer relationships
- Marketing strategies to ensure existing and potential customers understand your commitment to sustainability and your product features.
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