Sustainability assessment addresses the interlinkages between economic, environmental, and social dimensions. These questions can be challenging but we have to try our best, as there is an urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce material and energy consumption, and to promote a more even distribution of well-being globally. In order to make it happen, it is also necessary to consider the economic impacts.
Sustainability assessment tackles concrete questions related to measuring the impacts of products and services
Sustainability assessment is a topical and sometimes tricky question for multinational companies. Within the European process industries, life cycle-based sustainability assessment methods are commonly used to tackle internal and external questions related to the environmental impacts of products and technologies, and for the purposes of product development.
Although a lot of information about the manufacturing processes is collected on a regular basis, gathering and tailoring this information for the purposes of a carbon footprint or a water footprint might require a lot of manual work, sometimes even detective skills.
Life cycle assessment is a well-established method for sustainability assessment
Life cycle assessment evaluates the environmental impacts of a product covering the whole life cycle, from raw material acquisition to recycling or disposal. The aim of this comprehensive approach is to avoid shifting environmental impacts from one life cycle stage to another. Currently, the use of life cycle assessment is emphasized within European Environmental Policy. Life cycle thinking is also at the core of the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan.
Current practices and future development needs related to use of life cycle-based sustainability assessment methods in process industries were studied within the SAMT project. The findings of the project reveal that life cycle-based assessment methods are considered useful and important for addressing different kinds of questions related to the sustainability of products and services. There is also a growing need for and interest in integrating the principles of sustainability assessment and life cycle thinking within daily decision-making processes.
Figure 1. SAMT vision for future sustainability assessment was created in an open project workshop as cooperation between researchers and industrial experts.
Assessment methods and tools need to be adapted to the evolving needs of users
The forerunner companies have already made a lot of efforts to integrate environmental goals within all their activities. Yet in order to make it more practical and widespread, there is room for further development of the methods and supporting tools. One of the bottlenecks currently hindering the wider use of these methods is the availability of high-quality data. Most companies can, with some effort, acquire information about their own processes, but a common challenge is handling the processes taking place either upstream or downstream of their own activities.
New data-needs arise every time a new topic enters the sustainability agenda: While dedicated databases for addressing environmental aspects are already available, there is a growing need for social and economic data.
Cooperation is required for data acquisition – and for dealing with technical challenges
Including the preceding and subsequent life cycle stages and processes is usually of crucial importance in making a reliable assessment. In practice, this requires receiving more or less detailed input–output data from suppliers and customers. Available life cycle databases may provide some help here, but not all the required data is necessarily found from the databases.
Additionally, compiling data acquired from different sources usually requires a lot of manual work and modifications, which is slow and increases costs and the risk of errors. Challenges may also occur due to the technical incompatibility of different data formats and software versions. Thus, expertise in sustainability might not be enough – extra support from technical experts might be needed.
Sharing creates learning
Improved understanding of the product life cycle is useful to all actors: increasing material or energy consumption may sometimes be reasonable at the beginning of the life cycle if these choices enable lighter processes in the subsequent life cycle stages.
The experience gained in the SAMT project pointed out that discussion and sharing of experiences and learning between actors who deal with similar questions is inspiring and may help solve some of the challenges faced. While there are differences between the needs of individual sectors and companies, many of the practical bottlenecks are common to all actors. Discussions with suppliers and other members of the value chain was one of the good practices recommended for data collection.
Different technical solutions may also be found for sharing confidential data either directly or in an aggregated form. However, there is also a clear need for new tools or technical solutions for collecting, handling, and sharing data.
The SAMT project reveals that although no perfect method or tool for sustainability assessment currently exists, existing methods are already capable of addressing many aspects of sustainability, and providing useful information to support decision-making in different contexts. Sustainability assessment is a process that is never completely finished, but along the way it provides us with important information to guide our actions.
Sustainability researchers and method developers are encouraged to consider user perspectives and the practical issues faced when implementing the methods and tools in practice. These include the need to operate with limited data and resources. Industrialists are encouraged to be active in testing available methods and tools, in sharing their experiences, and discussing with stakeholders so as to increase knowledge of relevant sustainability aspects within and across value chains.
- See more details and proposals for concrete actions from our summary report.
- European Sustainable Development Week (ESDW) takes place every year from May 30 until 5 June. ESDW is a European-wide initiative to stimulate and make visible activities, projects, and events that promote sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
 SAMT project received funding from the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, under grant agreement no. 636727. The work was supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) under contract number 15.006.