The Karma of Products Exploring the Causality of Environmental Pressure with Causal Loop Diagram and Environmental Footprint

University dissertation from Stockholm, Sweden : KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Abstract: Environmental pressures from consumer products and mechanisms of predetermination were examined in this thesis using causal loop diagram (CLD) and life cycle assessment (LCA) footprinting to respectively illustrate and provide some indicators about these mechanisms. Theoretical arguments and their practical implications were subjected to qualitative and quantitative analysis, using secondary and primary data. A study integrating theories from various research fields indicated that combining product-service system offerings and environmental policy instruments can be a salient aspect of the system change required for decoupling economic growth from consumption and environmental impacts. In a related study, modes of system behaviour identified were related to some pervasive sustainability challenges to the design of electronic products. This showed that because of consumption and investment dynamics, directing consumers to buy more expensive products in order to restrict their availability of money and avoid increased consumption will not necessarily decrease the total negative burden of consumption. In a study examining product systems, those of washing machines and passenger cars were modelled to identify variables causing environmental impacts through feedback loops, but left outside the scope of LCA studies. These variables can be considered in LCAs through scenario and sensitivity analysis. The carbon, water and energy footprint of leather processing technologies was measured in a study on 12 tanneries in seven countries, for which collection of primary data (even with narrow systems boundaries) proved to be very challenging. Moreover, there were wide variations in the primary data from different tanneries, demonstrating that secondary data should be used with caution in LCA of leather products. A study examining pre-consumer waste developed a footprint metric capable of improving knowledge and awareness among producers and consumers about the total waste generated in the course of producing products. The metric was tested on 10 generic consumer goods and showed that quantities, types and sources of waste generation can differ quite radically between product groups. This revealed a need for standardised ways to convey the environmental and scale of significance of waste types and for an international standard procedure for quantification and communication of product waste footprint. Finally, a planning framework was developed to facilitate inclusion of unintended environmental consequences when devising improvement actions. The results as a whole illustrate the quality and relevance of CLD; the problems with using secondary data in LCA studies; difficulties in acquiring primary data; a need for improved waste declaration in LCA and a standardised procedure for calculation and communication of the waste footprint of products; and systems change opportunities for product engineers, designers and policy makers.