Hidden costs and life cycle analysis

Every product we buy represents an investment of the energy, water and material resources needed to make it.

For most people, their understanding of the environmental impacts of the products they use is limited to those that occur during use. For example, a person might think of a fridge as having a greenhouse impact resulting from being powered by electricity. But when viewed from a life cycle perspective, the fridge required a lot of energy, water and material resources to be manufactured, before the owner ever laid eyes on it. At the end of its life, when the owner is finished with it, it will be disposed of. This might release refrigerant gas into the atmosphere, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that some refrigerant gases have a global warming impact 1700 times that of carbon dioxide.

To understand how products can improve environmentally it’s important to understand that each product has a life cycle.

  • The design stage uses few resources, but determines how environmentally responsible the product is through the rest of its life cycle. Good design is like preventative medicine. It stops problems from developing in the first place or limits their development.
  • The manufacture stage sees raw materials processed to make a new product. These raw materials can come from virgin sources or from recycled materials (often called ‘secondary raw materials’), or a combination of the two. Processing uses energy and water and produces wastes and by-products, some of which can be used elsewhere. Others can contribute to pollution and need to be disposed of responsibly. Finished products are transported to warehouses and shops, using energy. We buy the products and use them. This may also involve using energy and water and may produce more pollution.
  • The operational stage sees the product in your hands doing its job. Choose products that do their job without wasting energy and water and that otherwise minimise their environmental impacts.
  • The disposal stage comes when the product reaches the end of its useful life. We can make a difference at the disposal stage by buying products that cause limited disposal problems and/or are recyclable. We can also simply buy less stuff.

Embodied Energy

Studying the life cycle of a product allows us to get a truer picture of its environmental impacts, including its total energy cost and greenhouse impact.

The total energy needed to produce a product includes the energy needed to mine or grow its raw materials, refine them and manufacture them into a finished product and any transportation needed along the way. This might include the fuel powering machinery that extracts iron ore, or electricity used to power sewing machines in a clothing factory. This total energy is called a product's ‘embodied energy’. To get an idea of a products true greenhouse impact, you have to count all of the greenhouse emissions from all of the embodied energy.

Similarly, all products and services, particularly food, have a water cost in various forms, from rainfall or irrigation used in agriculture to the water in the water cooler of the local bank branch. This is referred to as ‘embodied water’ or ‘virtual water’.