Xanthe Matychak, Saunders College of Business, RIT. October 2010

An online version of this handout can be found at:

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Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a framework from the sustainability* literature** that helps us understand the social, environmental, and economic outcomes of products, services, and systems. It can be used by leaders to understand and improve the sustainability portfolio of their organization through developing new products, services, and systems or by retrofitting old ones. I argue that improving the sustainability portfolio of an organization is not only a responsible thing to do, but it can also increase the organization’s creativity and innovation portfolio.

*What is the difference between environmentalism and sustainability?

Environmentalism examines the impact of man-made systems on the environment.

Sustainability is a much broader concept. It examines the impact of man-made systems on the environment, economy, and society at large.

LCA has 7 analytical components. Each phase has an effect on society, the environment, and the economy.

  1. DESIGN. This is the phase in which new products, services, and systems are invented. Every decision that is made in the design phase has an impact on all of the phases in LCA
  2. PRE-PRODUCTION. This phase assesses raw materials, natural resources extraction, and the energy used to prepare raw materials for manufacturing.
  3. MANUFACTURING. This phase assesses the impacts associated with manufacturing processes, not just on the environment, but on the laborers and other stakeholders in the community.
  4. DISTRIBUTION. This phase assesses the shipping “costs” involved with getting products to market. It also looks at the sales model.
  5. USE. This phase assesses the impact of energy and resources used by the user (or consumer) once a product is in their hands.
  6. DURABILITY. Durability of a product is best understood by assessing the relationship between two factors:
  1. How long a product is used
  2. How long it lasts
  1. END-OF-LIFE. This phase assess what happens to a product once it is no longer in use.

EXAMPLES from industry of each LCA phase.

  1. DESIGN. As mentioned earlier, design is embedded in all of the phases of LCA Therefore, it pertains to all of the following examples.
  2. PRE-PRODUCTION. Patagonia, the sports-gear manufacturer and retailer, is known for responsible sourcing of materials. They even make their process transparent with an online visualization called “The Footprint Chronicles.”
  3. MANUFACTURING. This is not a mega firm, but CraftedSystems has a very interesting labor model. Instead of outsourcing assembly of their products overseas, they work with women from the YWCA in Seattle to assemble their products. American Apparel is a larger organization that chooses to manufacture their products locally to providing jobs for people in their community.
  4. DISTRIBUTION. From a shipping perspective a  concentrated product, concentrated laundry soap for e.g., significantly reduces the shipping costs associated with that product. From a sales perspective, Ooja Stove for e.g., is a low cost cooking stove that was designed specifically to create sales jobs for community locals. This model minimizes shipping costs and creates jobs.  
  5. USE. Any Five Star appliance has been built to minimize the amount of energy or resources needed to run the machine. Washing machines that use low energy and minimal water, for e.g., have been designed with the use phase in mind.
  6. DURABILITY. Because it’s used so briefly, picnic-ware made from biodegradable materials has a much more appropriate durability than its plastic counterparts, which can last up to 5,000 years in a landfill after its brief use.
  7. END-OF-LIFE. Xerox employs a design method called “design for disassembly” which means that their parts are designed in such a way that they can easily be replaced when a copy machine breaks and thus, have cut down the amount of raw materials and manufacturing needed to keep their machines going.

EXERCISE. Use the form provided to brainstorm with your group on how you can improve the sustainability portfolio of your organization. Try to think of this tool not only as a way to help your organization be more responsible, but to be more creative for its numerous other benefits. And it’s fun!

Your organization: ______________________ (choose from the five listed on the board)

What type of product or service does your organization specialize in? ______________________________________________________________________________

Team members: ______________________, ______________________, ______________________, ______________________, ______________________

Use the following components of LCA to brainstorm on ideas for  new products or services for your organization.

**There are several LCA frameworks available. The one used here evolved from the LCA framework offered in The Okala EcoDesign Guide


"For whose benefit and at whose expense should the firm be managed?"

-R. Edward Freeman, A Stakeholder Theory of the Modern Corporation