Motta W. H.(a), Prado P.A.(a) and Issberner L.R.(b)
a) IBICT/UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
b) Brazilian Institute on Science and Technology Information – IBICT, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Keywords: Life Cycle Assessment; eco-innovation; ecological crisis; decoupling; product lifetime.

Abstract: The ecological crisis is directly related to climate change, depletion of natural resources, high generation of waste and so on. A review in industrial practices is a necessary condition to confront this crisis. New proposals to achieve sustainable development have emerged, among them is the life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology. This tool has been increasingly accepted as a way to assess the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life, encompassing the entire production chain: the extraction of natural resources, transport, production process, consumption and disposal of products (waste). This methodology has the potential to reduce ecological problems, minimizing the environmental impact of the productive activity. The LCA studies approach and measure each phase of a production chain, providing opportunities to identify critical points for environmental innovations, also known as eco-innovations. The decoupling, that proposes a reduction of material consumption in the production of the same amount of goods and services is discussed in this paper, alongside with the use of LCA and eco-innovation. The conclusion is that these three axes of the literature have to be more integrated, considering the huge potential to provide news means to tackle the ecological crisis. To summarize: (i) decoupling is a new production paradigm derived from the ecological crisis, intending to produce more with less environmental recourses; (ii) the LCA allows critical points in the production process to be found; (iii) eco-innovation enables the type of changes to be developed that replace the old one at the critical points. The co-evolution of these literatures promises many fruitful results that are still at their beginning, one possibility is to design a longer lifetime product.

Introduction

The global discussion on environmental sustainability and most recently the green economy, has gained central and undeniable force in recent years. The industrial capitalism, based on the continuous and cumulative development of new products and services, has generated different environmental impacts. As a direct result, the planet’s capacity to provide resources and absorb the waste produced by civilization is moving quickly to a critical and irreversible point.

According to the study conducted by International Resource Panel (IRP), the consumption of natural resources has accelerated and grown dramatically, bringing as a direct consequence, the reduction and even the depletion of many of the planet’s
natural resources (UNEP, 2010). It is estimated that US$3 trillion per year would be needed in new investments in resource supply to meet demand, if no other action was taken (McKinsey Global Institute, 2011). Thus, one of he greatest challenges of our time is to adjust production and consumption practices to accommodate the planets’ limits.

One of the proposals arising from this challenge is decoupling that focuses on improving resource productivity, as a means to disconnect the increase of production from natural resources. In economic terms, it means that negative environmental impacts decrease, while value is added to production (UNEP, 2011; UNEP, 2014).

According to UNEP (2010), from a life cycle perspective, all production ultimately serves the purpose of consumption. Thus, in the final consumption perspective, all emissions and the resource used during production process are assigned to the final consumption of the products and services. This life cycle perspective is sustained by a specific methodology, the LCA. LCA as a new support methodology for both production and consumption provides the necessary information for greater eco-efficiency through the production processes. It also collaborates with product design, resulting in a lower impact on the environment, and through considering the whole life cycle involved from the extraction of raw materials to final disposal of the product (waste).

Specifically, considering the use of natural resources, the consumption intensity of resources, will directly depend on the methods used to produce the goods and services and also on the product project. With particular reference to the question of product design, the article will approach the product’s lifetime.

This article can be categorized as a bibliographic and exploratory study and its goal is to present the importance and use of the proposed decoupling, LCA and eco-innovation when designing a product with an extended product lifetime.

Ecological crisis and the decoupling proposal

The current capitalist model based on continued growth of production and consumption, is directly impacting the planet’s capability to provide resources and absorb waste from these activities.

The production and consumption have mutual causality link and according to Lipovestky (2010), this relationship promotes an ever- growing path in economic activity. The larger volumes produced and consumed have caused serious social and environmental consequences and are at the origins of a so-called ecological crisis.

Decoupling, is a valuable concept that means a reduction in the rate of use of primary resources per unit of economic activity. This dematerialization is based on less use of material resources, energy, water and land, generating the same amount of economic output. According to the report by UNEP (2011) the consumption of natural resources – defined in the report by natural assets deliberately extracted from nature by human activity for its usefulness in creating economic value – have grown critically. This expansion has generated concerning environmental impacts. The consequences go beyond the declining of these natural resources, it also includes the way in which they are extracted (pollution and water misuse), the production processes used (emission, pollution) and post-consumption (waste e pollution), i.e., the resource entire life cycle.

The growing concern about the environmental issue within the production segment, suggests a new production model, which asks for greater eco-efficiency through production processes, resulting in a lower impact on the environment. This leads to the idea of a growth disconnected from larger environmental impacts, i.e., a more sustainable economy. To achieve this, it is necessary to have an absolute reduction in the use of natural resources on a global level.

One of the better ways to achieve decoupling is by using a methodology that has been widely accepted, due to its range of analysis, clarity and reliability of the data, the LCA. According to UNEP (2014), LCA is widely adopted in order to assess environmental impacts, associated with all the stages of a product’s life. The use of this methodology aims to avoid impacts and inefficiencies throughout the entire life cycle. LCA provides a large viewpoint on environmental concerns by compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases. In this way, the LCA helps to evaluate “the potential impacts associated with inputs, releases and interpreting the results, in order to help a more well informed decision” (UNEP, 2011).

Life cycle assessment and the eco-innovation

In the recent past, proposals related to environmental improvements were focused on the inner perimeter of the companies. But according to initiatives based on the life cycle, this focus was extended to all stages, from cradle-to-grave. It goes

“from raw material extraction through to materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and
disposal or recycling” (UNEP, 2011),

from cradle to grave. Each step is analysed and quantified in order to check the local, regional or global impact that the process will have on the environment.

In these terms, LCA is a key methodology to orientate innovation to a more sustainable economy which requires an absolute reduction in the use of natural resources on a global level. The LCA analyses how products may affect the environment during their resource consumption, manufacturing processes, use and also discarding. It is a holistic approach, which provide an examination of consecutive and inter-linked stages of a product system (Pujari, 2004).

The productive process studied usually involves the following stages: design; acquisition / extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, use / reuse / maintenance, recycling and waste disposal. Each of these steps are analysed and quantified in order to check the local, regional or overall impact, this process, product or service will have on the environment.

One of the great advantages of the LCA approach is that when contemplating the entire product life cycle, it can check if there is the transfer of the environmental impact of a cycle stage to another or from one category of impact to another. Thus avoiding that a measure taken in order to reduce the overall impact of the final product may end up transferring the impact to the other phase or other impact category or even worse promoting an higher overall impact. Therefore, it made it possible to recommend the redesign of a product, in order to ensure that it becomes less harmful to the environment. As a result these new products may possibly have a greater useful life, besides generating minor environmental impacts during use and since they have a broader lifetime, they would generate a lower natural resources use (due to a reduction in their purchasing frequency).

The LCA methodology has four specific phases to be followed:

  1. Defining scope and objectives of the study;
  2. Analysis of inventory;
  3. Environmental Impact Assessment;
  4. Interpretation of results.

The key phase is the interpretation, when is it possible to point out minor or greater changes on the technology used. Because the LCA focus is in the environment, these changes bring environmental benefits, and innovations that are called eco-innovations (as shown in Figure 1).

LCA enabling eco-innovations

But what is eco-innovation? According to OECD (2009) reports, eco-innovation is an innovation that results in a reduction of
environmental impact, no matter whether or not that effect is intended. Kemp et al (2007) defines eco-innovation as the production or harvesting of a product, production process, service or management method that is new business for the firm or the end user and which results, through its lifetime, in a reduction in the environmental risk, pollution and other negative impacts on the use of natural resources.

Eco-innovations may occur through different ways of combining materials and labour force, generating new products or entering a new attribute to an existing product, in a new production method, the discovery of new sources of raw materials, the change in composition of a product, etc. Smart companies are treating sustainability as a new frontier of innovation, in this case eco-innovation (NIDUMOLU et al, 2009).

O ́Hare (2010), points out that the product life cycle is considered to be a crucial aspect for two main reasons. First of all, if only part of the life cycle is considered, more significant problems in other areas of the life cycle may be missed. Secondly, solutions that are effective for one life cycle phase may create new environmental impacts in other life cycle phase. Therefore, after running an LCA study and having all the information on the impacts generated by the product throughout its life cycle, the promotion of greater product longevity is made possible. This is an important area of eco-innovation which has many important barriers linked to industrial power and economics. Even if this issue goes beyond this paper objective, it is worthy to say that this tool has the potential to provide crucial data against planned obsolescence.

According to Cooper (2010), public discussion on product life spans has historically concentrated around the concept of planned obsolescence. The reasons for an opposite movement against the planned obsolescence and a search for an extension of product life expectancy are many, ranging from the excessive use of natural resources to unacceptable amounts of waste and emissions arising from these productions.

According to Pujari (2004), in recent years, there has been an upsurge in the reporting of research in the area of eco-innovation, or ‘green’ innovation, regarding R&D, production processes, new products and new services. Starting from information derived from LCA studies, the proposed eco-innovative product can bring benefits in terms of lower consumption of natural resources, especially when developing a product with longer lifetime. This is obtained by making it more durable, harder to break or making it easier to be repaired or be upgraded, giving it a new product life.

Product life extension is an increase in the utilization period of products, which results in a slowdown of the flow of materials through the economy. According to Stahel (1986), it refers to the economy in which we ‘’do not repair what is not broken, do not remanufacture something that can be repaired, do not recycle products that can be remanufactured’’.

Discussion

Designing sustainably means getting the most use of the materials and energy that goes into a product. A great way to do this is by extending its useful life. This proposed extension of the useful product life is aided greatly by the LCA methodology, and its potential to promote eco- innovation.

The interpretation LCA phase is what most matters to this article, especially the improvement proposals of an LCA, because at this point, the opportunities to eco-innovations can be clearly observed.

Both proposals (LCA and eco-innovation) are adequate to promote an increase in the product’s lifetime. It allows, therefore, the
introduction of the advantages of a higher product lifetime to users and society in a clear and proven way. An important role of LCA is to compare accurately, the environmental benefits brought about by the increase in the useful lifetime of the product. This enables, for example, the comparison of the impact that would be generated by an early disposal of the product – as occurs in most of the projects, typically based on the programmed obsolescence practices – and the alternative  if it is designed to be a more durable product. Another example is related to the LCA studies on the trade-off between longer lasting products and energy consumption, as in the case of a more durable product, the energy consumed during its production will be distributed over a longer useful lifetime, contrary to what occurs on the product traditionally produced today.

Besides, an eco-innovation derived from the LCA study, may be one of a longer product lifetime and cost-effective in the consumption of energy or water during its use. Additionally, this type of eco-innovation may provide a lower generation of waste during the production or use, the use of recycled raw materials, among other environment-friendly characteristics.

Environmental problems, are of course, not restricted to the productive sector, several other aspects are involved, as in the case of consumption. At least when it comes to product design and production, eco-innovation and LCA can be regarded as a form of optimizing these activities and thus reduces their environmental impacts.

Conclusions

This paper intended to present a preliminary discussion linking decoupling, life time assessment methodology and eco-innovations. We have described some initial findings from our ongoing research investigating these three axes of literature, having in mind the contribution, from an industrial production point of view, towards reducing the ecological crisis. According to the study, each proposal, LCA and eco-innovation can jointly collaborate with increased product lifetime and decoupling. The LCA studies have the means to identify critical points where eco-innovation is recommended. LCA studies can also help to evaluate the existing trade-offs between the design of an enduring or a short usage lifetime product. Because LCA is a methodology that encompasses all stages of the production lifecycle, including the product discharge, it has the potential to replace products designed to become obsolete far before their functional lifetimes have expired.

It is hoped that this work can motivate practical applications of the eco-innovations arising from the LCA methodology, leading to new product lifetime designs and that future case studies can further contribute to this understanding.

Acknowledgments

Prado P.A. with grants from CNPq (National Council of Scientific and Technological Development).

References

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Kemp, R.; Pontoglio, S. (2007) Methods for analyzing eco-innovation, Report of the second MEI workshop, June 21-22, Brussels.

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