You sell a ‘thing’. But that’s not what your customers buy – they buy the whole life-cycle. A life-cycle measured by the energy use of the raw material extraction, the production, the use, and the disposal added together. And when judged on those terms, is your product as sustainable as you claim? Or, perhaps, more sustainable than you claim?

When measuring the full energy-cost of a stuff- anything from a hair-dryer to a cruise-ship – it’s conventional to chop it into four chunks:
1. Raw material phase
This phase involves digging minerals out of the ground, melting them, purifying them, and modifying them into manufacturers’ ‘lego’: plastics, glasses, metals, and ceramics, etc. (The energy costs of this phase include the transportation costs of trundling the raw materials to their next destination.)
2. Production phase
Raw material ‘lego’ is processed into a manufactured product. The factory where the hair-dryer ’s coils are wound, its graceful lines moulded, and its components carefully snapped together, uses heat and light. (The energy costs of this phase include packaging and more transportation.)
3. Use phase
Hair-dryers and cruise-ships both guzzle energy when they’re used as intended. (Hopefully the hairdryer using less than the cruise ship, otherwise that’s one very sunk cruise ship and one very hot hairdryer.)
4. Disposal phase
This phase includes the energy cost of putting the ‘stuff’ back in a hole in the ground (landfill), or of turning the ‘stuff’ back into raw materials (recycling); and of cleaning up all the pollution associated with the ‘stuff’.

Simple addition gives you your ‘stuff’s’ life-cycle energy requirement. It’s usually only one of these four phases that dominates the total energy cost. It stands to reason that if we wish to redesign a stuff so as to reduce its total energy cost, we should focus on reducing the cost of the dominant phase

Nissan have calculated the energy cost of their car output over a range of stages, but not quite correlating to the true life-cycle cost of the raw material extraction, production, use, and disposal. Nevertheless, one can see a dominant phase:

Car use alone excretes nearly 150 million tons of CO2 (Imperial, not Metric) versus the total energy cost of pressing, bolting, and welding the parts together, the shipping around the world, and the management of same of only 4 million tons of CO2 (Imperial, not Metric).

Clearly manufacturing cars that excrete less CO2 during use is the most effective way of reducing their total output – food for thought for any car manufacturer thinking of communicating how ‘green’ their offices are while not evidencing any attempt to reduce use-targets for their vehicles.

Here’s an interesting conundrum: Is this iPhone/iTouch paper stand that you download, print, and cutout any more, or any less life-cycle efficient than a manufactured shop-bought plastic version?


You certainly have to weight up the cost of raw material extraction, manufacturing, and delivery of the paper in your printer with the cost of raw material extraction, manufacturing, and delivery of a plastic version (with a few stops included, like importing, warehousing, and shop-holding).

Answers on a postcard please. (Or, more likely, on the comments board below.)


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• Oliver is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries
• Author of ‘Communications Plan – An output of Water for All: A Partnership for a Water Efficient South East‘ (2013, Waterwise, London, UK)
• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel populated by experts from academia, politics, military, government and civil society


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