Beware of greenwash! Reliable indicators exist for sustainable innovations

Now, at the beginning of Sustainable Development Week, is the ideal time to recount how we can best ensure the sustainability of innovations and projects. Companies can unintentionally slide into greenwashing which, in today’s business environment, can jeopardise an entire innovation breakthrough. Scientifically approved methods of assessing sustainability help firms to communicate transparently on environmental impacts.

The rise in temperatures is forecast to accelerate most in the northern hemisphere’s land areas during winter. According to some estimates, current emission trends will lead to warming by up to six degrees in Helsinki. Few Finns are enthused by a vision which sees us ‘enjoying’ temperatures hovering around zero from October to May. Only the light levels will distinguish April from December. And this is the most minor of issues compared to the effects of global warming on world food production, water sufficiency, the distribution of insects and plants, health-related problems and other issues related to extreme phenomena.

The challenge is huge but action is being taken

The mitigation of greenhouse gases and taking other action promoting sustainable development are now among the key strategic objectives of more and more states and companies. A total of 17 international objectives are listed in the UN’s sustainable development action plan for Agenda 2030. These goals include global themes such as clean water and sustainable production. The aim is to limit the global average temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees, in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.

During European Sustainable Development Week, we will explore the theme of the aforementioned Agenda 2030. Finland is implementing the programme in a number of ways. You can make your own commitment to take action via the Prime Minister’s Office, and challenge others to do so.

Companies still ahead of governments in taking practical actions

Innovation and risk-taking are more effective than regulation. Change is accelerating via the circular economy, cleantech and the bio economy, in which VTT is playing a major role as a developer of solutions. However, it is easy to be misled, since not all businesses that increase recycling or use biomaterials are sustainable. The processing of side and waste streams for reuse or the manufacture of biomaterials can require complex and energy-consuming processes, energy-intensive or harmful chemicals, or long transportations, and the availability of raw materials is not always guaranteed. A growing group of stakeholders, including national leaders, financiers and corporate customers are becoming more interested in environmental and social impacts alongside economic issues.

How is sustainability measured?

Science-based indicators are needed when assessing and communicating on the real impact of products and business models. These indicators include life cycle and system-based methods of measuring environmental impacts, such as LCA (life cycle assessment), which examines the overall effects. This approach ensures that sub optimisation does not lead to the shifting of problems from one part of the value chain to another, or exchanging them for others. It also enables us to communicate transparently on the impacts and avoid greenwashing.

LCA is already widely required in product development and communications. The next Horizon PPP-SPIRE call demands the transparent sustainability assessment for all projects, based on life cycle thinking and the most standardised methods possible. The European Commission is preparing an LCA-based guide for calculating product environmental footprints, or PEFs, in order to create an internal market for green products. The Commission recommends the future use of the footprint when measuring the environmental impact of products and in corporate communications.

Companies using LCA in product development will benefit at the customer interface, where responsibility has become a key issue and knowledge of the entire supply chain is important. For example, such companies find it easier to participate in the newest way of demonstrating corporate responsibility, the Science Based Target (SBT) initiative, and to define emission reductions in their operations accordingly. Targets under the SBT initiative are based on the emission reductions set by the Paris Convention on Climate Change and require consideration of the entire value chain. Almost 300 companies are committed.

Handprint as well as footprint

A range of indicators are needed for different situations and industries, to ensure that account is taken of the key aspects of sustainability. For over 20 years, VTT’s experts have been pioneers in developing LCA-based assessment methods and indicators. These methods are being developed further as information and the need for it increases. For example, we are launching a so-called handprint alongside various kinds of footprint. Due to their manufacturing processes, all products have an impact on the environment, i.e., a footprint, which should be minimised. In addition, many products can be used to reduce the environmental load elsewhere (e.g., water treatment chemicals), in which case the product also has a positive environmental impact. To enable the measurement and communication of such impacts, VTT has begun a Tekes development project to define an environmental handprint.

We are applying sustainability assessment methods to evaluating solutions at the product development stage, as well as finished products and their development potential. We will be delighted to help you if you are seeking the right indicators and intend to refine them for a clearer view of sustainable development.

Further reading:

Tiina Pajula VTT

Tiina Pajula
Principal Scientist

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