Quick Start to Add Life Cycle Thinking to Your Business: A Simple Overview of a Life Cycle Assessment in Sustainability

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Sustainable Life Style

Sustainable product development is gaining traction as companies invest in socially-conscious values, consumers opt for eco-friendly purchases, and policy makers strive for sustainable accountability. Alike to design thinking, sustainable product development requires a look from the perspective of each part in a larger ecosystem, including how they interconnect. Social entrepreneurs involved in this area use Life Cycle Thinking to determine the environmental impact of their product or service.

Life Cycle Thinking in action is called a Life Cycle Assessment. When partnered with sustainability, you are imagining a life cycle in its truest form: Low Impact & Circular.

What is a Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment?

Products are created, used, and sent to waste away in our current outdated and fading product life cycle. A sustainable life cycle would reflect more of what we know to naturally occur in the world, like the Water Cycle or the Circle of Life. Paths inside these cycles are generally circular, and stay within a certain boundary of impact. Circularity ensures a continuation of sustainable input and output at different stages of the cycle. Low Impact ensures the overall cycle stays in balance instead of an ecosystem collapse or a major shift to regain equilibrium.

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in sustainability helps a business track and review the environmental impact of their product or service. Along the product life cycle are five stages: Raw Material Extraction, Manufacturing, Distribution & Packaging, Product Use, and End of Life. Social entrepreneurs examine the stages individually to define what is happening to the product or service at each point. Paying attention to how elements in each the stage interact with other stages adds depth. Both perspectives together allow socially-conscious businesses to recognize any ripple effects or trade offs that happen within the product life cycle.

Plans for sustainable product development can start the LCA ahead of time to change a product approach in the early stages. Proactive choices towards sustainability can save time, money, and resources.

The Design Stage of Sustainable Product Development

Depending on your view of the topic, the design stage could be seen as part of or not a part of the product life cycle. Regardless, this part in a sustainable business journey becomes a glimpse at the trajectory of a product or service. The Design stage lays out what materials are used, the dimensions, and other factors that show up throughout the product life cycle. The LCA written out helps business see where they could rethink a design aspect.

Questions that come up during a design process:

Is this material biodegradable?

Can this material be sourced sustainably and locally?

Should this product be able to disassemble at the End of Life?

Do our distribution partners have sustainable options that match our metrics for this product/ service?

Most of what you will deal with depends on how you choose to approach the LCA. Naturally, the LCA for your business is potentially specific to your socially-conscious business. Location, size, and business type could switch how you approach the LCA despite general overlap with other businesses. Social entrepreneurs selling a sustainable home good product through an online marketplace would examine a different path than a clean beauty ecommerce store.

What is the simplest way to start a Life Cycle Assessment?

Development of a sustainable product life cycle appears to be a very detailed process. More detail shows you more of the impacts, trade-offs, and ripples taking place in the life cycle. Taking the first steps to doing better don’t have a requirement. You can start simple.

A quick start to Life Cycle Thinking with the LCA means examining the barriers of sustainability you can consider at this moment. As your socially-conscious business grows, you can increase your investment into sustainable product development. Not being able to solve all your sustainability barriers now is part of the process, and fits right in with the sustainable progress around the world. While you improve, a sustainable solution that doesn’t exist now may come up in a few years.

Focus on how you can simplify the LCA to take the actions that you are able to take. Next are topics under the five stages of the product life cycle you can explore for your quick start. When exploring the topics, remember to be curious about the possible environmental impact caused throughout interactions in the product life cycle.

Raw Material Extraction

  • Where is the extraction location, and how does the method of transportation impact the extraction process?
  • How much energy is used in the extraction process?
  • What aspects of the native/ local landscape are affected by the extraction?
  • How frequently must extraction take place to fill current demands, and could that throw the native/ local ecosystem out of balance?
  • If working with a business partner, does the business partner provide information on metrics related to the questions above?

Manufacturing

  • What power source does the manufacturing use?
  • Does the manufacturing use recycled or up-cycled sourcing?
  • Is the manufacturing in compliance with sustainable standards or in good standing with any sustainable certifications?
  • If working with a business partner, does the business partner provide information on metrics related to the questions above?
  • Can misshapen or faulty product (that do not inhibit functionality) be used differently instead of thrown away? (Think: discounted program, or creatively changing the original use in-house)

Distribution & Packaging

  • Which sustainable packaging suits the typical transportation needs of the product/service?
  • Can transportation times or distance be reduced by changing the method or path of transportation?
  • Will increasing the number of distribution centers involved be more eco-friendly than one distribution center or vice versa?
  • If working with a business partner, does the business partner provide information on metrics related to the questions above?

Product Use

  • How much average input does the product/service need? (Think: charging, updates, maintenance)
  • What is the longevity of the product, and what impacts its longevity?

End of Life

  • Is the product biodegradable?
  • Can the product be disassembled (or for electronics, securely wiped clear)?
  • Are there instructions for how people can restart the product’s life cycle? What do people do with it instead of throwing it away?
  • Can a reuse, repair, or remanufacturing program be included in the business?
  • Are there other businesses that can be collaborators in the End of Life solution?

Simple First Steps. Do What You Can.

Considering these topics give a simplified plan for taking the first steps toward sustainable LCA. Sustainable product development actually branches off into other themes, such as Social Life Cycle Assessment (examines social and sociological aspects), Environmental Product Declaration (LCA transparency, ISO 14025), or the official LCA analysis by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO 14040 and 14044). In time, those are topics to explore, but for now, the simple steps are what will give you momentum.

Not everyone is involved with every part of the product life cycle, but it’s important to know what you can about what’s going on in the life cycle of your product or service. Make it easier on yourself by working with partners who understand the value of sustainable choices. Push the LCA of your product or service towards sustainability for people, planet, and profits.

Sustainable Life Style
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