Whether we examine big global issues, such as expanding the growth of GMO food; or smaller, more personal decisions such as buying an electric vehicle, judging the sustainability merits of any initiative is a tricky task.
It’s always a good idea to assume the truth is more complicated than the label on the surface, and things get more complicated as the scope expands beyond environmental issues to consider safety, health, wellbeing, ethics and economics. Even trying to study an issue can be prohibitively difficult, with supply chains that tend to be global and complex. A material deemed ‘unsustainable’ in the US may be the livelihood of an impoverished family on the other side of the world.
So, what’s a responsible organization supposed to do? The good news is that there are tools available that focus on certain metrics and indicators to guide a decision. One of the most powerful tools is life cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA is an analysis of a product or process that considers every stage in its existence and measures key environmental impact categories, usually from cradle to grave. While LCAs typically focus on environmental effects such as greenhouse gas emissions, aquatic toxicity, air pollution, and water quality, some examine social or economic influences, as well.
The strength of LCA as a practice is that it facilitates comparisons between products with a holistic lens, looking at upstream and downstream impacts. This can uncover impacts that could be hidden from the product designer, manufacturer or customer. Today, executives interested in designing products with environmental advantages are using LCAs to identify opportunities and inform their innovation processes. Typically, the stages in a product’s life cycle that have the greatest environmental effects also are the ones that present the best opportunity for sustainable innovation. If sustainability is part of the innovation process, then LCA should be conducted to ensure the avoidance of unintended consequences.
An interesting example in the cleaning products industry is the trend towards using plant-based chemicals, instead of traditional petroleum-based ingredients. On the surface, renewable feedstock would seem to be a better solution versus chemicals that are derived from natural gas or oil; indeed, the carbon footprint of most bio-based products is lower than that of an analogous petroleum-based product. However, LCA is a full environmental accounting, so upstream impacts must be included. For bio-based products, those upstream impacts — driven by agricultural practices — tend to be worse for categories such as water pollution.
In a case like this, LCA can inform potential customers and manufacturers on the big picture. Depending on your priorities, you might value a lower carbon footprint more than water pollution issues, and customers may still want to use the bio-based product if price and performance are equivalent, even after learning about the impacts of upstream agricultural practices. The goal is to allow stakeholders to make informed decisions based on the facts. Knowledge of these impacts can even help research and development efforts to look for other bio-based feedstock — such as agricultural waste — instead of crops, which might not carry the same negative impacts.
Sustainability can be a complex subject, even when we all agree that we’re trying to do the right thing. But the challenges that we face are too great for us to default to the easy solution. Sometimes we need to roll up our sleeves and do a little more digging to uncover the unintended consequences and hidden tradeoffs that allow us to make informed decisions.