Understanding the Environmental and Social Impacts of Commercial Products

Yesterday I saw yet another headline about green packaging. Something like: So and so android phone is changing their packaging from plastic to paper. My greenwashing antennae immediately went up and I asked these questions, “How much of an impact will a change in the packaging make? Does this change offset the conflict minerals used in the phone or the embodied energy in its manufacture and use over the product lifetime? Is changing the packaging for a cell phone solving the right problem?”

Our obsession with eco-friendly shopping bags and packaging is merely a metaphor for how important consumer culture is to us. If only we make green bags to put our purchases in, then everything will be ok. In addition to revealing our values, this focus on packaging also reveals our limited understanding of the environmental impacts of the stuff we make, sell, buy and use.

There’s a framework called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that can help us gain a holistic understanding of the environmental and social impacts of commercial products. My explanation here is not for environmental scientists – they already know this stuff. But it’s for designers and inventors. And it’s also for those of us on the ground, average people with curiosity about these things. It’s for people who can handle grey areas without black and white answers. It’s for people who won’t shut down when faced with complexity but rather continue to be curious and questioning.

Life Cycle Assessment – phases

RAW MATERIAL. This is to examine where materials come from. Some questions we might ask are: Are the sources sustainable? Does extracting them have negative impacts? Do they use fair labor practices? Are the economics fair? Do the growers get a fair price for the raw materials they grow (think coffee or chocolate).

PRE-PRODUCTION. Raw material needs to be processed for manufacturing. In the case of reclaimed plastic, it needs to be processed before it’s recycled and turned into new material. As for leather, a material I’m working with now, it needs to be tanned. There are different types of tanning. Vegetable tanning uses a lot of water. Chrome tanning uses more chemicals. You can also look at labor practices including the health impact on workers in this phase.

MANUFACTURING. Questions you might ask here are about the environmental impacts of how a manufacturing shop is run. And what are the labor practices? Some shops that I’ve visited around here have programs that train people who need a second chance to work on the factory floor. This is pretty awesome and the handful of folks I’ve met in these rolls seem grateful. Other factories use chemicals that make their workers and surrounding communities sick. So when voters and their reps complain about regulation being anti-business we need to remember that regulation is also pro-human health.

DISTRIBUTION. The simple question to ask here is how far did the product (and its components) travel before it got into the consumer’s hands. This can be one of the benefits of shopping local. If the merchant you are buying from is selling locally made goods, then the goods didn’t travel far. There are also packaging questions to consider in this phase. Is the product designed to be shipped flat packed and thus take up less space on a ship or truck? And at the risk of causing a distraction, I wonder what impact distributed manufacturing might have on the distribution phase. Distributed manufacturing is what affordable desktop tools like 3D printers enable.

USE. These are the questions asked once the product is in the user’s hands. Let’s look at a home energy monitor. No matter how the product was manufactured, we want to look at the impact on its user’s behavior. Does it cause them to significantly lower their energy use? Or with a dishwasher, does it cause it’s user to use less water? One that’s really complicated is streaming video – how much energy does this use in the home and how much does it use in servers around the world? And if you fly a lot, well jet fuel has a much greater impact on the environment than any shopping bag.

DURABILITY. This phase is often misunderstood as “longevity” with longevity equalling “good.” But that’s not complete. I think of durability as a proportion that looks like this:

HOW LONG IT IS USED :: HOW LONG IT LASTS

With a chair, for example, I might want it to last for 100 years. Or longer if it’s designed to be an heirloom. But for picnic ware for a party at the park, it’s only going to be used for a few hours. So it doesn’t need to be designed to last 500 years in the landfill. Something that bio-degrades might be a better fit.

END-OF-LIFE. This phase is about tracking where the product and parts will go when we are finished using it. A lot of what happens in this phase is determined in earlier phases of the product life cycle. Some products are designed to be disassembled. Some products release toxins when disassembled (think e-waste). Some products are designed to have a second function. Some packaging is designed to be taken back by the company. Some materials keep their integrity when they are recycled and others lose integrity.

So these are the phases of LCA. If you need fewer questions and more quant data, do a search for “LCA calculator.” I haven’t reviewed those but if you find one that you like, let me know!