Products are undoubtedly the best medium for companies to both manage their sustainability performance from within their own organization and from without. Products are the avatars that encapsulate a business’ sense of social and ecological ethics—locally and globally. Large businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the power of “product sustainability,” demonstrated by progressive efforts such as Organic and Fair Trade labeling, WalMart’s Product Sustainability Index, Nike’s Materials Sustainability Index, and GoodGuide.

The science of product sustainability has evolved considerably due to the increasing focus in this arena.  Product carbon footprinting is an increasingly common term referring to the method of life cycle assessment (LCA).  The LCA procedure evaluates a product’s impacts on the environment from “cradle to grave,” meaning all the way from raw materials extraction, through production, transportation, consumer use, and through end-of-life recycling or disposal.  There are prominent consulting companies, laboratories in top universities, and academic journals dedicated to LCA. New LCA software tools appear by the month.

Unfortunately, as long as product sustainability analysis requires substantial domain expertise, it will remain a one-off, independent activity that is not capable of being integrated into business decision making. Having worked as a life cycle analyst for 6 years, I know that the supply chain process maps, environmental impact graphs, and attempts to predict indirect and future effects often lead to analysis

paralysis.  I have spent upwards of 6 months studying a single product, collecting data and building complex models, all to finally synthesize clear, implementable recommendations based on sound scientific analysis. So it is disarming and even depressing for a client to conclude that the identified impacts are too distant from their sphere of control to be able to reasonably do anything about them.  All of my hard work just became a report that sits on a desk to collect dust.

There are five attributes that a product sustainability management system requires for successful operation.  It needs to be quantitative, integrated, empowering, simple, and standard.  These five key points aim to identify common roadblocks in product sustainability systems, in order to provide a compass for best management practices.

  1. Quantitative.  Both mathematics and music have been called the universal language, as they are comprehensible regardless of one’s origin.  Communicating product performance with quantitative metrics is an absolute must, enabling businesses to track their progress over time, compare across business units and across products, and even to perform sustainability analysis along with financial planning and bottom-line costs, revenues and profits.
  2. Integrated.  Product sustainability metrics must be integrated into day-to-day business decisions, otherwise they will forever remain isolated pet projects that are funded by research and development budgets.  Firstly, they must be expressed in financial terms—the sole quantity that businesses care about.    Secondly, integrated means that product sustainability will be measured continuously and can consequently provide feedback mechanisms for performance, enabling performance data to influence daily decisionmaking.
  3. Empowering: Think Globally, Act Locally.  While climate science, life cycle analysis, and spatial geographic information systems are particularly good at giving a holistic, bird’s-eye view of the impacts of industrial production; they aren’t very good at empowering change at the local level.  Product designers, financial planners, machinery engineers, and salespeople all need to be able to use integrated, quantitative metrics to evaluate local scenarios and see what makes sense for their business, in ways that they can actually change.  This means being able to compare product metrics such as energy use, water use, and carbon footprint across every product simultaneously.  This enables a business to identify hot spots in order to achieve reduction goals, check the performance of their highest volume products, and determine which products are ready for marketing sustainability characteristics to customers.
  4. Simple.  There are in fact two very pragmatic reasons that simplicity is imperative to product sustainability analysis: 1) to easily communicate and understand it, and 2) to keep costs down.  Simplifying analysis not only means that more people in companies that care about sustainability will understand it, but it also means less expertise is required to conduct the analysis.  This simplicity keeps expensive consulting hours down, and consultants can instead add value by implementing strategies to reduce environmental impacts.
  5. Standard.  A reproducible product footprint method is paramount, such that independent companies can follow a trustworthy formula, and such that the results are comparable across products (both internally and externally).  Consumers need the consistency of Nutritional Facts labels to be comparable, just as the Internal Revenue Service needs standard accounting procedures.  Companies generally only care about knowing exactly what data they need to put in, where to get it, and what they will get out—in a standard, reproducible fashion.

With the help of a colleague of mine, Sahil Sahni, and that of several other students and entrepreneurial advisors, he and I began a company called LinkCycle.  We built and tested a variety of ideas for making product sustainability analysis practical and scalable, and have refined the idea through a combination of harsh feedback and solid advice from large businesses, our TechStars mentors, and experienced consultants and professors.

We have developed algorithms which take data that companies already have, and deliver a breakdown of energy and resource consumption into each of the production lines.  This enables plant managers to identify production lines with high consumption patterns, and to make production and reengineering decisions that reduce costs and enhance margins.  Product managers can understand their product’s cost structure without having to resort to inaccurate cost allocation techniques, or install expensive meters in the facility.  By design, the Footprinter software is quantitative, integrated, empowering, simple, and standard – all of which are the products of nothing more than a hard day’s work.