Posted by: Christian Verstraete | November 7, 2009

We need the End-to-End View

I ran into a blog entry on Cnet the other day. It was entitled “LCD making worse for the environment than Coal?”. This got me thinking. LCD televisions and screens are often seen as “green”, eco-friendly, because they consume less energy than conventional CRT tubes. However, according to the blog, during manufacturing nitrogen trifluoride, whose globe-warming effect, according to scientists, is 17.000 times stronger than that from CO2, is used in chemical vapor disposition. I have heard a lot of requests to move to flat panel displays for lower energy consumption, but this was the first I heard about the harm during manufacturing. Similar claims have been published around the Toyota Pruis. As the article Environmental Pollution: Prius vs. Hummer demonstrates, information is not often manipulated because the true data is not available.

It illustrates very well the importance of looking at the impact of a product throughout its whole lifecycle, from manufacturing all the way through recycling. Most companies today unfortunately do not provide that information, nor do they focus on that. We find many, laudable, efforts to reduce this or that substance from a product, but it is not put into context. If we take a substance out, by what do we replace it? Is the new substance, including its manufacturing, usage and recycling, less harmful than the previous one? These are the real questions that we need to ask ourselves.

A number of companies are using “Design for the Environment” to take the product lifecycle into account right from the product design stage. In doing so, they not only look at the manufacturing of the product, but also at its usage and recycling. Such approach requires an in depth understanding not only of the components going into the product (which can be obtained from the suppliers), but also from the product usage (work with consumers), and recycling operations. But to achieve this, the company needs data, provided by suppliers, the distribution channel, the consumers, and the reverse logistics partners. This is becoming the next battlefield. The companies that will be first at being able to convince their partners to share more information and use it to their advantage to make “greener” products will be the ultimate beneficiaries. Legislation helps, but has a tendency to lag behind the innovators.

With the same logic in mind, I was surfing another blog entry, called “BPA-free and proud of it”, pointing out that Sigg, a Swiss company, has developed reusable drinking bottles in stainless steel to reduce the usage of disposable bottles and cups. It’s an interesting concept. However, let’s think about the lifecycle impact. What has been the effect of manufacturing the stainless steel and paint on the environment? How much water is used to rinse the bottle? If the bottle needs to be collected for refill, what is the effect of the collection process? And I could continue that way. Frankly, I don’t know the answers to those questions, and the bottle may be a great addition to our increasing list of “greener” products. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether anybody ever did the exercise.

You disagree with me, obviously feel free to react.


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