The importance of life-cycle thinking when choosing sustainable products (including paper)


October 8, 2012

It would be easier to focus just on one attribute when making a choice about which product to buy. You could just look at price, but then you may not find the quality or features that you want.

Similarly if you want to consider the environmental and social impacts of a purchase, you could focus on one attribute. You could just look at how your TV was made, but then you would not evaluate the raw material inputs, the emissions from use and the disposal issues.

One of the key advantages of using life-cycle thinking is to avoid hidden tradeoffs and unintended consequences (Terrachoice, 2010).  For example, if you look only at the recycled content of paper, you could buy a product made at an older mill facility with higher water and air emissions, or a higher volume of solid waste to landfill than a modern state-of-the-art mill using wood fiber.  In other words, beware of marketing claims that focus on single attributes of the life cycle because they do not tell the whole story about the environmental footprint of paper products.

The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is facing this same challenge. TSC has been tasked by Walmart and the other consortium members with developing a system to evaluate the sustainability of consumer goods and their supply chains. It would be easier to pick an approach that considers only a few criteria; however this would not meet their mandate of a science-based system that improves environmental and social sustainability for all product categories. They have chosen to take a life-cycle approach in all of their work. It is harder and more complicated but will result in more progress towards measurable sustainability improvements without creating unintended consequences.

TSC’s Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System (SMRS) is being created in two levels through a close collaboration between all members, including retailers, their supply chain, universities and NGOs. Level 1 leverages existing life-cycle research to profile the sustainability of product categories and develop key performance indicators (KPI). The KPI are used to drive questionnaires that retailers discuss with their suppliers. Walmart is currently piloting these questionnaires, which they call “product category scorecards” with several product categories. They plan to roll out hundreds of scorecards by the end of 2013. The product category scorecards will have a real impact on the sustainability profile of the consumer goods. Walmart is using the scorecards to set and track improvement targets with suppliers, and to select/de-select products and suppliers. Similarly, TSC’s other retailer members plan to implement their own tools based on the work of TSC. The second level of SMRS is a new IT platform based on new life-cycle models which will allow quantitative tracking of detailed sustainability data on product categories, as well as specific products.

To date, TSC’s life-cycle based work on paper has found that many attributes, namely fibre source, manufacturing (energy, GHG, water consumption, emissions to air and water) and end-of-life treatment are all important factors to examine in the sustainability profile of paper. Focusing on a single attribute may be easier, but focusing on all the important attributes will get us closer to sustainability and achieving a lower overall environmental footprint of the products we use.

Christine Burow is a guest blogger for Two Sides U.S. She runs an independent consulting company focused on business-to-business strategy with an emphasis on marketing and sustainability. Christine is also Co-Chair of The Sustainability Consortium’s Paper Sector.