Sustainable product development with life cycle assessments and product carbon footprints

Every single product, be it a good or a service, causes specific environmental impacts at all stages of production, in use – or during the consumption and utilisation phase – and during disposal.

Businesses are responsible for producing environmentally sound products. For manufacturers and businesses to be able to identify critical points in a product’s life cycle, an objective analysis is first needed: where and when do what environmental impacts occur and how can they be reduced, for example through appropriate product development or modification of the product portfolio?

Life cycle assessments and product carbon footprints: from cradle to grave

Some of the necessary information is provided by a life cycle assessment (LCA). This divides a product into its individual life cycle stages – production, use and disposal – and quantifies the environmental aspects and potential product-specific impacts of each stage as clearly as possible. A life cycle assessment takes into account a wide range of possible impacts on the climate and the environment – such as greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication potential, acidification potential and particulate emission risks. A product carbon footprint (PCF), in contrast, is concerned only with greenhouse gas emissions.

The main purpose of conducting life cycle assessments and calculating product carbon footprints is to identify hot spots in product life cycles so that remedial action can be taken in the areas in which performance is weakest. For one product, soil acidification at a particular stage of the production process may top the list of its negative environmental impacts; for others, greenhouse gas or particulate emissions or loss of biodiversity may be more significant.

In an LCA products are regarded as complex systems or “product trees” and all their relevant energy and material flows are considered.

Internationally standardised method for analysing environmental aspects

A key aspect of any LCA is its “system boundaries”. Since product trees can have many ramifications, it is essential in any study to specify cut-off criteria – in other words, to provide a transparent and logical definition of the point beyond which consequences will no longer be considered. Standard DIN EN 14040 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) specifies methods and conditions for drawing up such boundaries without ignoring important information, together with other methodological principles.

The standard lays down principles and conditions for drawing up LCAs for products. Among other things, it defines four essential stages in preparing an LCA: definition of the goal and scope of the LCA is followed by a life cycle inventory analysis, a life cycle impact assessment and finally by interpretation. In addition, DIN EN ISO14044 specifies the requirements in detail and provides precise instructions.

Some 25 years ago the Oeko-Institut helped paved the way for the present standardisation of LCAs by developing a comprehensive product assessment tool known as Produktlinienanalyse.

Sustainable fish farming with alternative aquaculture systems

The Oeko-Institut is currently using LCAs to analyse the benefit to the environment of sustainable rather than conventional aquaculture systems. The aim is to enable potential environmental problems in this growing industry to be promptly identified and avoided. In South-East Asia, for example, fish farming is destroying large areas of mangrove forest, polluting lakes and rivers with fish excrement and food remains and consuming large quantities of fresh water.

The Oeko-Institut is acting as scientific advisor to ten research projects supported by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) foundation and assessing them in the light of sustainability criteria. An important aspect is improving pisciculture in closed-loop systems on land. Other issues being considered by the two-year research programme are the introduction of new species of edible fish and environmentally sound methods of feed production.

Product carbon footprinting: tracking down CO2 in everyday items

Greenhouse gas emissions were the subject of the Product Carbon Footprint pilot project, which involved the Oeko-Institut, WWF Germany, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and THEMA1, as well as ten large companies. As part of the project, the carbon footprints of ten everyday products were calculated.

Calculating and analysing the specific greenhouse gas emissions of particular products was intended partly to help the businesses involved optimise their emissions throughout the value-adding process. At the same time the project also wanted to explore simple and reliable ways of telling consumers how climate-friendly individual products are.

In this pilot project the Oeko-Institut was able to ensure that product-specific greenhouse gas emissions were calculated on a sound scientific basis using internationally recognised methodology and that criteria for product-specific communication were drawn up. The pilot project’s findings were incorporated into a memorandum of the German Federal Environment Agency and the Environment Ministry and into guidelines published by the Confederation of German Industry (BDI).

Coffee: growing and brewing have the largest CO2 footprint

The opportunities that arise from calculating the product carbon footprint are illustrated by the coffee variety “Tchibo Privat Kaffee Rarität Machare” from Tanzania. While high transport-related emissions might be the first thing to come to mind for a product such as this, the analysis shows that the largest source of emissions is cultivation on the farm, which contributes around 59 grams CO2-equivalent per cup of coffee or 56 percent of the total. Surprisingly, the next-largest contribution, at around 30 percent, is made when the coffee is brewed by the consumer. By contrast, all the transport at all stages of the value chain, together with roasting and packaging, account for only around 12 percent of the total – a relatively small proportion.

CO2 labels don’t go far enough

The other examples also yield some surprises. For example, for Henkel’s “Persil Megaperls” laundry detergent it turns out that the size of the PCF depends mainly on the washing temperature selected by the user. At an average washing temperature of 46°C this life cycle stage accounts for more than 70 percent of emissions, namely 510 grams CO2-equivalent.

This example makes clear that the option – much-discussed in Great Britain and France – of using a general CO2 labelling system to inform consumers about the environmental impacts of the products they buy is inappropriate. Of what use is a number on a packet of detergent without the information that it is the individual and his or her washing habits that is largely responsible for the level of the carbon footprint? A better approach might be to break the number down into stages such as production, use and disposal in order to reveal to the consumer the relevance of modifying user behaviour or extending the use phase. With this in mind, the Oeko-Institut is currently working with TU Berlin to explore how the concept of the carbon footprint could be incorporated into existing ecolabel schemes.

Opportunities for manufacturers and businesses

For manufacturers and businesses, life cycle assessments and product carbon footprints can be important pillars of environmentally sustainable production. Using resources and energy efficiently, reducing material consumption and optimising material selection are examples of how environmental impacts on the business side can be reduced.

In addition, such calculations help provide consumers with credible information about the environmental impacts of the products they use. Studies show that over the last ten years consumers have come to attach ever greater importance to knowing how green a product actually is.