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Feasibility of environmental product information based on life cycle thinking and recommendations for Switzerland

Jungbluth, Niels, Büsser, Sybille, Frischknecht, Rolf, Flury, Karin, Stucki, Matthias
Journal of cleaner production 2012 v.28 pp. 187-197
business enterprises, carbon footprint, consumer behavior, decision making, environmental assessment, environmental impact, food consumption, households, life cycle assessment, life cycle thinking, prices, purchasing, supermarkets, system boundary, Switzerland
In the recent past, several initiatives have been launched to reveal the carbon footprint of consumer products or provide other life cycle based environmental information. The presentation of environmental product information (EPI) may contribute to better informed purchase decisions. It would help to direct the attention of companies to more eco-efficient products and production processes. Yet several key aspects still need clarification. The strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and the limits of environmental information about products have been investigated in a feasibility study in detail. This article discusses the main challenges facing the provision of meaningful information to direct consumer decisions. As a first step, we evaluate different methodological approaches towards calculating environmental information about products based on life cycle thinking. This shows that a carbon footprint might be insufficient for full environmental information and thus the use of life cycle assessment (LCA) is recommended for this purpose. The level of decision-making addressed by the approach must be considered. It describes which type of decisions is assisted. Here we recommend starting with higher levels of decision-making, i.e. calculating average impacts of product groups and addressing the general differences between these groups. Consumers would thus see the relevance of different buying decisions and could e.g. compare the environmental impacts of travelling with these of food consumption. After that, the approach may be refined and analyses carried out of individual products within a product group. The consideration of the use and end-of-life phases of products is a special issue to be defined within an EPI. These phases may be very important, depending on the type of product. However, the use phase often exhibits major variability, as it is influenced by disparate products and consumer behaviour. Furthermore, the use and final disposal of a product can only partly be influenced by the producer. We think that it is not feasible to systematically include the full life cycle in an EPI. Therefore we recommend that the environmental information should be shown for the product as it is bought in the shop (life cycle from cradle to shop). Thus, the system boundary of the environmental LCA coincides with the system boundary of the price of the product purchased. The impacts of the full life cycle could be shown additionally and separately if they are relevant for the total impact. Consequently it is necessary to show the environmental impacts relative to a functional unit. For the assessment of environmental impacts in Switzerland we suggest using the Swiss ecological scarcity method. The communication of the respective LCA results in a simplified form is another issue to consider. For simplifying communication, the environmental impacts of a product should be related to overall an environmental goal, similar to normalisation. The so-called “eco-time” use can then be applied as an understandable unit in business to consumer communication. There are several obstacles to putting life cycle based environmental information for products into practice. It is questionable whether one particular approach towards environmental product information can serve all kinds of purposes, starting from supporting comparative assertions of different brands of a product offered in a supermarket to comparing different consumption patterns of households. The approach proposed here should help to focus the attention of consumers first on the most important aspects for sustainable consumption.