The products we use every day have an environmental impact that stretches far beyond responsible recycling. Global brands are recognizing their responsibility to improve sustainability across the six key stages of a product’s entire life cycle.
As you conscientiously throw a used plastic bottle into the recycling bin, you might imagine that it is about to embark on a great environmental adventure during which it is recycled into something new—a piece of clothing, a car component, a bag, or even another bottle. But while it may have a fresh start ahead, recycling is not the start of its environmental journey. Far from it: Every moment of a product’s existence has environmental impacts that responsible brands want to quantify, minimize, and mitigate. One common way to achieve these goals is through a life cycle assessment (LCA), an independent analysis of environmental consequences throughout a product’s entire life cycle—often divided into these six key stages. Glass Skincare Packaging
Every product, from soaps to sofas, starts life as raw materials. These may be minerals mined from the ground, crops grown in the fields, trees felled in the forests, gases extracted from the air, or animals fished, farmed, or hunted for a specific purpose. Obtaining these raw materials comes with an environmental cost: Finite resources, such as ores or oil, might be used up, as well as habitats destroyed, water systems changed, and soils irreparably damaged. In addition, extraction can cause pollution and contribute to climate change. With farming one of the biggest sources of raw materials, many global brands are working with suppliers to ensure that they use sustainable practices that protect precious topsoil and preserve local ecosystems. In Mexico, global beauty brand Garnier is teaching farmers that produce aloe oil, for the company to use organic methods that support soil health and to employ drip irrigation that reduces water stress. Garnier is also helping to raise awareness in these communities about the forests that help regulate local and global climates and the threats they face.
Almost all raw materials are processed before they are manufactured into a product. This often takes place in mills or factories close to where they are obtained, but the environmental impact can spread much farther afield. Processing metals and minerals releases particulates, microscopic solids or liquids small enough to be carried in the air and inhaled, causing health problems. However, industrial wet scrubbers that filter out the particulates offer a cost-effective solution—especially when companies face heavy fines for pollution. Creating new virgin plastic for manufacturing also has a serious environmental impact: Four percent of global oil production is used as raw materials for production and another roughly four percent to power processing. Garnier is committed to replacing virgin plastics with recycled plastic and other materials that could save the need to make nearly 40,000 tons of virgin plastic every year.
A single product often combines many raw materials sourced from all over the world, giving it a considerable carbon footprint before it’s even made. Manufacturing is regularly associated with waste being accidentally (or sometimes deliberately) released into rivers or the air—including carbon dioxide and methane that contribute directly to climate change. Responsible global brands implement strict procedures to minimize or even eliminate pollution, including filtering, extracting, and, where possible, recycling waste products—waste carbon dioxide can be used to make fuel or even food. And with manufacturing often requiring large amounts of energy and water, brands like Garnier are looking to employ more sustainable systems. As well as working to be 100 percent carbon neutral by 2025, Garnier’s industrial sites use renewable energy, and their “water-loop” factories treat and recycle every drop of water used for cleaning and cooling—reducing the pressure on already strained supplies in countries like Mexico.
Once a product has been created, it needs to reach the consumer. This usually involves burning fossil fuels that contribute to climate change and release pollutants into the atmosphere. The huge cargo ships that carry almost all the world’s cross-border cargoes burn a low-grade fuel that contains 2,000 times more sulfur than regular diesel; in the U.S., heavy trucks (tractor-trailers) and buses make up just around one percent of vehicles, yet produce over 20 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, distribution is getting greener, especially with the combination of fuel-efficient freight trains for distance distribution and hybrid vehicles for the final mile deliveries. Products and packaging can also be designed for more sustainable transportation. Garnier has rethought shampoo from a liquid to a solid bar that not only eliminates plastic packaging, but is also lighter and more compact, making it more environmentally efficient to transport.
Even after a product is purchased, it continues to have an environmental impact that responsible global brands are trying to minimize in the design phase. A car uses oil and fuel through its lifetime, but better design―from aerodynamics to engines―can decrease both fuel consumption and pollution. Similarly, efforts can be made to minimize the environmental impact of repairs, such as building products so that they last longer. Even something as everyday as washing has an environmental impact that responsible brands are keen to reduce. Not only are Garnier’s products formulated to be more biodegradable and better for the environment, the company’s development of quick-rinse technology cuts the time taken to wash away product—not only reducing the amount of water needed, but also the energy used to heat that water up.
It’s often when we finish with a product that we start to think about its environmental impact—how to ensure it is disposed of positively. Usually this means recycling, during which a product is broken down into raw materials that can be used again to make a new product. Increasingly, though, products are being designed to be more easily recycled, from food packaging to furniture to electronics. This is usually a better “end-of-life” option than incineration or disposal in a landfill, either of which can be wasteful and harmful to the environment. But recycling is not the only option. A product’s life can by extended by simply reusing it: This might involve repairing broken technology, upcycling old furniture, or simply refilling a used plastic bottle. Garnier, as well as moving to more biodegradable packaging and working toward a circular economy for plastics, is making more of its products available as eco-efficient refills for reusable bottles—significantly lowering the product’s environmental footprint.
LCAs can be lengthy and expensive, but responsible brands are investing in them to make their products more sustainable. By recognizing their responsibility for every stage of a product’s life cycle, responsible global brands like Garnier are working toward a more sustainable future where we will all tread more lightly on the environment.
Aluminium Tube Cosmetic Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society Copyright © 2015-2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved