Assessing the sustainability performance of products

Understanding the environmental impacts of a product can provide an excellent insight into how to reduce manufacturing costs and create better products for customers, so here's our quick guide to product lifecycle assessment or LCA. 

Product Sustainability Assessment

Whole-life product sustainability assessment (aka “lifecycle assessment” or “LCA”) is tool to assess the environmental impacts of a product or material across its lifecycle, from creation to disposal. Environmental impacts arise across all activities or processes during a product’s life such as resource consumption during manufacture or emissions of substances to the environment at end of life.

Not all assessments are identical in their structure, but will cover those impacts that are important or “material” to the activities and processes that relate to a particular product. The main areas are:

  • Climate change
  • Ecosystem quality
  • Resources
  • Human health

ISO 14040 is the international standard for product sustainability assessment.

The inventory

The inventory maps and measures the flow of inputs and outputs throughout the life cycle of a product or material. To define what data is collected and what is excluded, the boundaries of the analysis are defined at the start of the assessment

To calculate the flows of inputs and outputs, either primary or secondary data can be used. Primary data is collected first hand, from the manufacturing plant that is actually making the specific product in question. Secondary data is taken from other sources, such as aggregated industry databases.

Primary data is more accurate as it relates to the specific process or activity that is being assessed. It is not always available and is more expensive to collect, which in some cases can make the assessment unfeasible.

Secondary data is less accurate (but its quality is increasing as more product assessments are undertaken), however, it is useful where data is either difficult to measure directly, in initial preliminary assessments or where there is limited budget.

Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)

Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) are a way to deliver meaningful and consistent information about a product’s environmental impacts. They follow the ISO 14025 methodology and the quality of the information is verified by a third party to ensure they are reliable.

They also allow similar products to be compared as the format and content of EPDs for products that fulfil equivalent functions (e.g. ducting) are determined by Product Category Rules (PCR).

EPD are particularly important for construction products as they are can be used to demonstrate a product’s environmental performance and are increasingly a requirement to include in tendering documents and specifications.