, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 432-439
Date: 06 May 2008

Life cycle management of energy-consuming products in companies using IO-LCA

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Abstract

Background, aim, and scope

Today, the effective integration of life cycle thinking into existing business routines is argued to be the most critical step for more sustainable business models. The study tests the suitability of an input–output life cycle assessment (IO-LCA) approach in screening life cycle impacts of energy-using products in companies. It estimates the life cycle impacts of three products and assesses the suitability of such approach in a company environment.

Materials and methods

The multiple case studies evaluate the suitability of an IO-LCA method in a company environment. A comprehensive life cycle cost and impact study of three product systems (building ventilation system, information and communication technology (ICT) network product, and welding machine) is conducted and the life cycle phases with highest economical and environmental contribution are determined. Scenario analysis is performed in order to assess the sensitivity of the results to major changes in the studied systems. Finally, the usability of the IO-LCA approach for environmental evaluations in companies is assessed by collecting data on workload and interviewing the participating workers and managers.

Results

The results showed that the use phase with operating energy was environmentally important in all evaluated energy-using products. However, only in one case (ICT network product) the use was the single most significant life cycle phase. In two other cases, the sourcing was equally important. The results also indicated that the IO-LCA approach is much easier to adapt by current management of companies because it automatically links life cycle costs to environmental indicators and, by order of magnitude, reduces the workload in companies.

Discussion

It appears that the IO-LCA approach can be used to screen environmentally significant life cycle phases of energy-using products in companies by utilizing readily available accounting or other documented data. The IO-LCA approach produced comparable results with the ones published in traditional process-based LCA literature. In addition to the main results, some practical benefits of using the IO-LCA could also be suggested: the approach was very fast to use and would thus allow an easier adoption of environmental evaluations in companies as well as wider environmental testing of products in early conceptual design phase.

Conclusions

The results indicated that the IO-LCA approach could clearly offer added value to the environmental management of companies. The IO-LCA was found to provide a very fast access to the key life cycle characteristics of products. Similarly, it offered practical means to integrate life cycle thinking into existing business routines and to activate the decision makers in companies by giving them easily comprehendible results.

Recommendations and perspectives

The results would suggest that similar environmental IO tables, besides the US ones used here, would have value and should be collected for other major geographical and economical regions. The tables would enable a much larger share of companies to manage their environmental issues. It also seems that, because the user profile is so dominant in the case of energy-using products, more studies, both theoretical (How to valuate the future behavior in environmental studies?) and empirical (What really creates value for users?), should focus on the behavior of users.