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Durability: The Missing Piece of the LCA Puzzle


By Jim Weglewski

Product durability is often an under-represented facet of product stewardship. Cradle-to-grave life cycle analysis (LCA) aims to capture the impact of a single product on the environment, from a “supply” point of view.

While informative, a single item LCA obscures the overall impact of the demand life of the product in question.

Consider the common pen. In selecting an environmentally responsible pen, an enlightened person may consider the LCA data associated with material extraction, manufacturing processes, distribution and disposal of different pen options.

Presumably, the pen with the lowest impact numbers would be the responsible choice.

Maybe not. Let’s reconsider this scenario, and begin by defining the “demand life” of a pen as the time span over which the user requires the functionality of the pen. That demand life is close to the typical lifespan of the user, or around 70 years.

We know that more than 1.6 billion disposable pens are consumed every year (where they end up, no one really knows). Informal Internet research shows that individual pen use varies widely. For the sake of argument, let’s say one person consumes 40 pens each year. A demand life of 70 years infers that a single pen with a lifetime of functional durability would replace 2,800 consumable pens.

Given decades of demand life, the most responsible purchase is likely the most durable pen.

Today’s marketplace does not place a high value on lifetime functionality. Durability often requires incremental upfront expense to the user. Our consumption-oriented society relegates such products to niche premium markets.

What makes a product a winner from the demand life perspective? Obvious contributors include inherent material longevity and sturdy functional components. Equally important, but more subtle, factors include amenability to repairs, long-term availability of replacement parts, and a modular design that enables technology upgrades over time.

This ability to mitigate functional obsolescence is a key factor in avoiding premature landfill disposal.

Still, manufacturers will face pitfalls in their quest to extend functional durability. Products made from inherently durable materials may not function durably over an extended period. Flashy, new features attached to durable products can also dramatically shorten their functional lives.

Durable materials can also result in trade-offs regarding the renewability or recyclability of materials. For example, many products derived from petrochemicals are extraordinarily durable; however, they also draw from finite resources and bring end-of-life challenges related to biodegradability and recyclability.

The key is not to view single item LCAs in a vacuum. Manufacturers should evaluate individual product LCAs within the context of the total number of products demanded and produced over time.

That broader contextual lens has helped our team understand that, in many cases, the most significant way we can reduce environmental impacts as a manufacturer is to produce windows and doors that last.

Focusing on durability is not new for Anderson Corp., where I serve as vice president of Corporate Quality, Sustainability and Facilities. We offer long product limited warranties, and continue to have service and hardware available for windows after the warranty has ended. What is new, however, is our understanding of how durability affects our overall footprint.

We are excited about the possibilities catalyzed by this broader view of the LCA puzzle. We believe we can achieve a long-term competitive advantage by collecting the data needed to substantiate and ultimately market the choices we make to extend durability in product development.

We invite other manufacturers to consider this broader model in their own research and development efforts. Some product categories may even find opportunities for truly disruptive innovation. (Imagine a world where the frame of your smartphone lasts 10 years, and you only pay for service and software!)

Most importantly, we ask consumers to demand more durability out of the products they buy. Transformational change will happen when consumers start substantiating that commitment with their dollars.

Image credit: Flickr/fragiletender

Jim Weglewski is vice president of Corporate Quality, Sustainability and Facilities for Andersen Corporation.

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