Each pair of shoes, piece of jewellery and bottle of perfume has a rich life story. From tanning leather to being transported across seas to sourcing the finest botanicals – there are countless steps involved in the realisation of a product. Before we can understand the full scope of a product’s environmental impacts, we must take a comprehensive look at each step of its creation.
This is where a life-cycle assessment, also known as cradle-to-grave, comes into play. As a systems-based, quantitative method of evaluating the environmental impact of a product, it is a tool used to assess the stages and impact of a product’s entire life cycle – from raw material extraction (cradle) to waste treatment (grave).
One of the most important factors of conducting a life-cycle assessment is delineating the so-called “system boundaries” which defines each and every element that has to be considered. Let’s imagine we are applying a life-cycle assessment to a pair of woven cotton trousers. The “system” would begin with the cultivation of cotton plants involving everything from irrigation to fertilizer production to pesticide use to harvesting.
From there, the spinning, weaving, dyeing, and finishing of the cotton must be considered, as well as all the chemicals used in the process. We would then follow the cotton’s life as it is transported and distributed to consumers (don’t forget the packaging!), and then its use by the consumers themselves including washing and drying. Ultimately, the trousers’ life concludes when they are either disposed of or recovered for recycling. From beginning to end – or cradle to grave – the energy used and waste created in each part of the system is all part of the assessment.
It’s evident that carrying out a life-cycle assessment is no easy feat! The extensive amount of data collected, compiled, and analysed makes the process a very involved and time-consuming one.
However, a successfully completed life-cycle assessment provides us with crucial information by identifying key materials and processes within the products’ life cycles that are likely to pose the greatest impacts. These assessments help inform businesses’ production and design decisions to make product improvements.
Not only do life-cycle assessments help promote responsible production, leading to reduced overall environmental impacts across various industries, but they are also widely used as a valuable decision-support tool for policy-makers.
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