A Holistic Consideration of Product Life Cycles

by Jessica Bass

Worldwide production, use, and disposal of products and resources without thought of the value of natural elements they comprise from or consideration of how these will re-enter the ecosystem, continuously draws society farther along an unsure path. At some point we will have to face questions of how to sustain ourselves using the resources that we had previously burned, buried, or tossed away. Analyzing the environmental, technical, economic, and social factors inherent in products to ensure they are well-sourced and responsibly disposable may seem an overwhelming task at the individual level, but the potential for producing a means of measuring these factors through a single, holistic system, allows the possibility of guiding informed decisions in resource use and policy. Dewulf et al. (2015) have developed an analytical framework to help users identify the impacts of a product or resource’s life cycle from its start as a raw material or energy carrier, through its manufacturing, use, and disposal, quantifying its sustainability across many different respects of these processes. The integrated sustainability assessment framework produced ultimately holds potential to serve as a compass to guide social support for, and policy decisions regarding, product use based upon a multitude of stable and sustainable factors.

The process of analyzing and measuring the impact of a product or material’s life cycle is increasingly being conducted with respect to singular concerns such as child labor or the probability of recycling. However, efforts to quantify and assess sustainability must account for the diversity in and connections among the life cycles of a wide variety of resources. Dewulf et al. strive to capture a holistic measurement of sustainability, beginning from the most basic level, that is, their origin in nature. Within the primary production sector, natural resources can be categorized as either raw materials or as primary energy carriers. These can be further characterized by their renewability and their status as biotic or abiotic in order to systematize the resulting products that continue on in manufacturing, use, and finally their end-of-life phase.

With this foundation for following a product’s life cycle established, Dewulf et al. consider potentially unsustainable concerns and constraints. These factors, they found, may take four key forms in nature. Environmental areas of concern include emissions and natural resource loss; technical concerns address changes in technology and corresponding physical accessibility of resources and resource quality; social factors consider working conditions and impacts of product use upon human health, and finally, economic concerns encompass the dynamics of trade including price and supply stability, and related geopolitical issues. In order to quantify the nature of these areas of concern throughout a product’s life cycle, Dewulf et al. identify indicative factors that correspond with each constraint, yet can be pieced together to provide a comprehensive analysis of a product’s cradle to end-of-life sustainability. With this foundational framework lies a potential to conduct holistic and quantitative product analysis with only the selection of a perspective (to analyze specific vulnerabilities) and the incorporation of active models and data.

Dewulf, J., Mancini, L., Blengini, G. A., Sala, S., Latunussa, C., Pennington, D. 2015. Toward an Overall Analytical Framework for the Integrated Sustainability Assessment of the Production and Supply of Raw Materials and Primary Energy Carriers. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19, 963–977.



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