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Is Lifecycle Assessment Marketable?

Grocery store shelves

From oil to sneakers, sustainability has gone mainstream.  And it seems that no industry is under more public pressure to go green than the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry.

As sustainability creeps into our kitchens and bathrooms, consumers are looking twice at their toothpaste.  Leaders in sustainable CPG packaging, from Seventh Generation to Stonyfield Farm, have been active to shrink their footprint and minimize impact.  And now, with Clorox recently unveiling its new “greener” logo, mainstream CPG companies seem to have fully joined the party.

The trend towards sustainable packaging is undoubtedly a good thing, but the standards from which consumers are judging sustainability are dangerously superficial.  Lost in leaf-covered logos and craft-paper packaging is the full impact of the production of these consumer goods before they hit the shelves.  While Clorox and others have made important strides in creating more sustainable goods and packaging, consumers are left with little to no information on their products’ full lifecycle.

Lifecycle assessment is the process of understanding the complete environmental impact of creating a product from its inception.  CPG claims often stop at “This Package is 100% Recyclable”, while little is said or known about the process involved to create that package.  The result is a drive towards products that may be recyclable or compostable, but potentially are not better for the environment.  Consider the dirty, resource-intensive intensive process for converting pulp to paper.  Can we be certain that paper packaging is always “cleaner” than plastic?  And when one considers the fuel, energy, and materials to make and ship a new car, is buying a shiny new Prius always greener than driving your old SUV for a few more years?

The problem, of course, is that a product’s lifecycle assessment is complex and difficult to convey eloquently to consumers.  So we are left with green, leafy logos.  The good news is that the companies that pioneered sustainable CPG continue to strive towards greater disclosure and complete cradle-to-grave (or cradle-to-cradle) assessment.  Seventh Generation has led the charge with its “radical transparency” disclosure model, while Timberland’s Green Index rating system incorporates the entire lifecycle of each product, hiding nothing from an increasingly engaged consumer.

Lifecycle assessment is not yet as sexy as recyclability or electric cars, but as sustainability continues to move into the mainstream, it is up to us to make consumer packaged goods, well… good.

Follow Reed on Twitter @reedbundy
Image Credit:  Krystian Olszanski via Flickr under CC license.

Written by reedbundy

After working in the United States Congress for four years, Reed turned his attention to the private sector to gain a more complete understanding of how business strategies can be applied to foster positive social and environmental change. Since leaving Capitol Hill in 2004, Reed has worked for a clean tech startup, an international development non-profit, and most recently in a marketing/CSR capacity for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Reed holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and a MA in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. In his spare time, Reed serves on the advisory board of the Hurricane Island Foundation in Maine, tutors high school students in Cambridge, and spends as much time as humanly possible outside with his wife, daughter, and dog.

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