How Sustainable Product Development Gives a Competitive Edge

Sustainable Product Development
February 05, 2019

The buzz phrase on sustainable development today is: Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA).

LCSA evaluates a product’s life — from cradle to grave — in terms of its positive and negative impact on the environment, society, and economy.

Groups worldwide are promoting this idea through various initiatives. The UN Environment agency, for example, developed the Life Cycle Initiative (LCI). LCI is a public-private collaboration that attempts to help companies conform with the Paris Agreement faster and more efficiently using the LCSA approach.

Let’s examine how this holistic approach to product development is being implemented, encouraged, and successful.

Life Cycle Initiative in Textiles

The UN’s goals by 2022 are to have the Life Cycle Initiative mainstreamed into at least four global areas of decision- and policy-making for sustainable development; train more than 2,000 policy-makers, business owners and LCA practitioners on the ways Life Cycle Knowledge can improve their business’ competitiveness; and offer access to global LCSA databases.

Several businesses have taken advantage of the UN’s initiative and experienced substantial growth.

For example, Freudenberg South Africa manufactured interlining for the garment industry. When the clothing industry declined in South Africa, their market shrunk. To stay in business, the company knew it had to revamp itself. So it began developing non-woven textiles for car and building interiors, as well as the energy, hygiene and medical markets.

Freudenberg South Africa took advantage of a UNEP / SETAC Life Cycle Initiative program, designed to help SMEs and small businesses build their capacity to implement a life cycle approach. Through this program, the company received support from a Life Cycle Management coach.

As the supply chain seemed to be their greatest challenge, the coach suggested evaluating each supplier based on price, quality, reliability, cooperation, innovation, as well as environmental protection and workplace safety practices.

According to Jeanette Geldenhuys, SCM Manager at Freudenberg Nonwovens South Africa, implementing a life cycle approach, together with involving suppliers upstream in the process, helped them improve product quality and delivery. This contributed to ensuring customer satisfaction. It helped them increase competitiveness while adapting to a challenging decline of their previous textile market. It enabled them to expand and grow new markets, with sustainability as a competitive advantage.

Life Cycle Thinking in Cosmetics

On the other side of the world, Brazil’s Natura Cosméticos has practiced sustainability as a guiding principle since the company was founded in 1969. But this manufacturer of cosmetics, fragrances and toiletries has stepped up its game. In 2015, it joined as a road tester of an Organizational Life Cycle Assessment (O-LCA) methodology, within the framework of a Life Cycle Initiative project. Specifically, it applied Life Cycle Thinking across its value chain.

The company took a two-part approach:

  • The bottom-up approach considered both upstream supply chain activities and downstream activities (such as transport and end-of-life phases).
  • The top-down approach took into account the impacts of corporate activities.

The results showed that major impacts are concentrated in the extraction and production of ingredients and packaging, followed by a phase that demands water and energy to rinse-off products.

The main impacts of Natura’s activities are land use, fossil depletion, and climate change, due to the amount of ingredients of plant origin (particularly palm oil), transportation, and plastic for packaging materials.

The study also highlighted the urgent need in Brazil for regionalized life cycle inventory data. This is one of the more pressing needs for Latin America if Life Cycle Thinking is to become a major catalyst for better business.

Natura earmarked specific actions to be taken in the future to improve data collection, such as developing site-specific models for its ingredients, such as the “agroforestry system cultivation” of palm oil.

Natura found that using LCA science to measure the environmental impacts of its supply chain greatly boosted its practices and embedded sustainability into the company’s business model.

The lesson is clear for companies around the world. Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment and Life Cycle Thinking are not only good for the Earth and the environment, but they also give a competitive edge by allowing a company to show its green credentials to the market.


Laurie Toupin