Sustainability assessment requires cooperation along the life cycle – Knowledge exchange benefits all actors

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.[1] 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.

SAMT vision 2030

Figure 1. SAMT vision for future sustainability assessment was created in an open project workshop as cooperation between researchers and industrial experts.[2]

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.[3]

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.

Why bother?

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.[4]

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).

Hanna Pihkola VTT

Hanna Pihkola
Research Scientist

[1] 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.

[2] See:

[3] Read more from our project deliverable.

[4] For more information, see our project deliverables D2.1 & D2.2.

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