Typical approaches to promoting environmentally preferable products usually make a big deal of one or a few isolated attributes, or broad generalizations that don’t always lead to the best choice, despite the appealing but often misleading marketing hype and claims.
A focus on the life cycle of a product or service involves looking at the environmental, economic and social impacts of upstream processes such as extraction and transportation of raw materials, manufacturing, and so on, the end-use and the possible disposal or reuse options at the end of its useful life. The known and unintended consequences of short term actions as well as competing impacts over the full lifespan of the product or service need to be better understood. We need some assurance that addressing one environmental problem doesn’t just end up giving birth to another unexpected problem elsewhere, in some other form.
Some examples to think about:
- bio-based, rapidly renewable materials (e.g., bamboo) are not necessarily more environmentally friendly; increased fertilizer and watering requirements, and transportation distances need to be considered
- the US administration’s policy to promote biofuels, such as ethanol from corn has already led to widespread disastrous consequences, including using up prime agricultural land that has contributed to soaring food prices
- recycling is not automatically a good choice, depending on the material, transportation distances to recycling facilities, and whether the process may actually be more intensive than using virgin materials (e.g. burning newsprint for its fuel value may be the better option)
- plastic Christmas trees don’t look like such a green option when you consider the resources and emissions associated with their production and the fact that they stick around in our landfills for a very, very long time, and compare them with the environmental impacts of harvesting rapidly renewable “real” Christmas trees from a farm where they are being grown like corn for this specific purpose
- so-called “clean” technologies may not be so clean (yet) when you look at the overall environmental impacts in terms of the resource consumption, high capital cost and infrastructure investments involved in making them available (e.g. hydrogen fuel cells)
A systematic analysis and understanding of life cycle trade-offs and benefits is usually a highly complex and data-intensive undertaking that’s beyond the capability of the lay person. There are very few “one size fits all” solutions.
At the end of the day, we should all strive to make more informed choices by increasing our general awareness and understanding of the trade-offs between alternatives so that we’re less likely to get fooled into thinking our choices are sustainable, while the reality may be exactly the opposite.
If you have some eye-opening examples of the trade-offs between product and technology choices, object violently to an idea presented here or just have some questions that you’d like to explore further— please join the conversation!