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The Lifecycle of a Product
I first wrote about the lifecycle of a product in 1990 (see below). Not much had been written then, but I was co-founder of a new company that was making some of the first green products and I needed some way to assess the environmental impacts of a product, so I developed my own Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that showed how the product was connected to the Earth.
Today I want to give you this concept in a more personal context.
The Definition of “Product"
First, I need to give you the definition of product.
Quite simply, a product is something produced. Today we think of a product as something made in an industrial factory and sold through the industrial supply system, but a product is simply the result of production, whether that production is done with machines or with our own hands.
Production is to cause to have existence or to happen.
Nature is producing all the time, and so are we. Anything we cause to happen is the product of our cause.
The Definition of “Lifecycle"
Lifecycle is the entire cycle of life of anything, from beginning to end.
Very simply, a lifecycle goes like this:
- Having an Idea of what you want to produce
- Gathering materials from the ecosystem
- Making the product
- Using the product
- Returning any wastes and leftover materials to the ecosystem
The lifecycle of a living human or any other species in Nature would be from birth to death.
Product lifecycle assessment is the process of looking at the entire life cycle of a product from the moment the resources begin in the Earth to the moment they return to the Earth.
When making any kind of product for sale, the basic idea is to identify and evaluate all the environmental impacts of a set of linked activities that comprise the product from “cradle to grave.”
There are two simple concept s at work. The first is to measure the inputs and outputs that go into a product system. For example, if you were baking a cake, you would input eggs, milk, sugar, and other ingredients into a bowl, use energy through the electric mixer to process the ingredients and energy in the oven to bake the cake, and output a cake and some dirty dishes. Manufacturing a product is a very similar but more complex process.
The other factor is the different stages a product goes through beginning with the taking of the raw materials from the earth and ending with the disposal of the product after use. Each of these steps has inputs and outputs, and each must be analyzed for its environmental effects:
- Raw materials acquisition
- Processing of raw materials into ingredients
- Manufacture of ingredients into products
- Use and maintenance of the product by the purchaser
- • Disposal
By putting these two concepts together, LCA becomes nothing more than measuring and analyzing the environmental effects of the inputs and outputs at each stage of the product life cycle.
This can be very simple or so complex it can hardly be compiled.
I am now going to give you two very simple examples.
Lifecycle Assessment of the Product “Salad” Made From My Organic Garden
I actually was inspired to write this post yesterday while I was in my organic garden. I wanted to make a salad for dinner. I had gone to our nearby farmer’s market that morning specifically to buy fresh lettuce and now I was in my garden to see what else I could put in the salad.
So I had started with the idea “salad.”
I gathered organically-grown materials from the farmer’s market and from my garden—last night it was a large swiss chard leaf and a handful of edible pansies. Neither required any disposable packaging. The lettuce went into a handmade basket made from 100% renewable/biodegradble materials and I carried the plants from my garden in my hands.
I took the materials into my kitchen and washed them using untreated water from our well. I used my hands and a knife to tear and cut the vegetables to size. I made a simple dressing of honey and vinegar. I added some organic fermented olives. All these ingredients were sourced nearby. The honey and vinegar and olives a little further away, but still in California.
Everything went into a reusable bowl.
I ate the salad.
Food scraps went into the compost bin. I ate the whole salad so there was nothing left in the bowl.
What I took from the environment lived on as nourishment in my body and i made a contribution back with compost.
By making my own salad I get to experience direct participation in Nature and with my local farmers.
And I get to eat vegetables that have been picked from fertile ground that day. From my garden, within minutes.
Lifecycle Assessment of the Product “Salad” Made in an Industrial Factory
I have to say the thought of even writing this makes me cringe. OK. I’m taking a deep breath.
The industrial salad comes in a disposable plastic bag or bowl or tray. Without driving to the store and looking at one, I don’t know the type of plastic used or if it is biogregradable, but even if it is, it needs to be manufactured and it uses resources and is unnecessary as a salad ingredient. Further it is printed with petroleum-based inks and put in yet another package (box) for shipping and handling.
The ingredients are usually not organic.
The not-organic salad ingredients are shipped to the factory from somewhere, requiring fossil fuels and creating CO2 that affects climate change.
In the factory, which also burns fossil fuels the ingredients may be further packaged and then assembled using machines with conveyor belts, which are oiled with petrochemicals which can be released and contaminate the salad.
After you eat the salad, there is a pile of garbage that needs to be collected (more trucks and CO2) and then broken down or contained in a landfill.
This is what is sold to us by the industrial system because they are “more convenient” than making a salad yourself and because it is more convenient we’ll “eat more vegetables.”
When we look at the whole lifestyle of packaged salad kits, the environmental harm far outweighs the nutritional benefit of us eating vegetables that are probably at least a week old.
Thinking With Product Lifecycle
Unless the maker of a product provides a Life Cycle Assessment, all we can do is make our best general guess.
As part of my Lifely work, I will be encouraging makers to provide lifecycle information on their products.
It’s what we need to make lifely decisions.
And I will be here to guide and help this process.
When I was doing product development at WorldWise, we provided this information in the form of stories about our products. Lifely products are fairly simple.
Life Cycle Assessment begins to be difficult when products become industrial. You need to track where each material comes from and every process used.
The Life Cycle Assessment for a Lifely product based in Nature really is a story.
The whole point of Lifely is to move away from industrial production and forward into human integration with the systems of life in which we all dwell.
It is to this end that Life Cycle Assessment can be a useful tool.
Life Cycle Assessment for Worldwise
I wrote this in 1990 when I was co-founder of one of the first companies dedicated to making green products. It contains details for evaluating and creating manufactured products.
In 2002, Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things architect William McDonough went beyond cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment to shows how life principles can be applied to industry by envisioning industrial factories as living system. This book was a great inspiration to me and I think everyone should read it. I refer to it often.