Towards empirically grounded guidance for resource efficiency: Applying, developing and synthesising environmental assessments

Abstract: Many solutions have been proposed to mitigate environmental damage, including resource efficiency and the vision of circular economy. Suggested solutions are often formulated as guidelines and heuristics like in the EU waste hierarchy, so-called R-hierarchies for resource efficiency and various guidelines for circular business models. However, these are often formulated on a conceptual basis without empirical support. Hence, it is often unclear in what contexts they are valid and how they can be interpreted for different types of products and applications. Systemic environmental assessments are necessary, and have been widely employed, to provide more solid empirical support for guidelines and for investigating the efficacy of suggested solutions. There is also a need for the results and learnings of those assessments to be easily understandable and usable for guiding decision-making towards reducing environmental impact within, say, product design and business management.   The purpose of this dissertation is to 1) formulate empirically grounded guidelines for resource efficiency and 2) test existing guidelines and heuristics in specific cases. The first aim is addressed by synthesising assessments of resource efficiency measures in literature. This revealed in what circumstances each measure can yield environmental benefits, depending on product characteristics, as well as when there are possible trade-offs and limitations. Several product characteristics were identified as of key importance for the efficacy of measures, including whether products are durable or consumable, active or passive, used for their full technical lifetime, used frequently or not and finally the product’s complexity and pace of development.   The second aim is addressed by carrying out a prospective life cycle assessment (LCA) scrutinising the expectations of metal 3D printing for reducing automotive environmental impacts. The results showed that 3D printing can potentially reduce future life cycle impacts, by allowing redesign of components for lower weight and thus lower fuel consumption. However, this is only valid with low-fossil electricity for the printing process and developments towards printing with low-impact materials like low-alloy steel.   The second aim is further addressed by testing the potential environmental benefits of alternative business models. The method business model LCA method (BM-LCA) was developed for this purpose, taking the business itself as the object of analysis. The method uses economic performance as the basis of comparison, thus allowing a business to calculate the environmental consequences of business decisions. BM-LCA was applied to an apparel company, comparing selling and renting jackets. The results show that renting enabled sustained economic performance while reducing environmental impacts. This depended, however, on the sustainability of the transport and energy systems, as well as on business model parameters like price and rental efficiency, and on customer habits.   This dissertation shows that environmental assessments can be used to provide an empirical foundation for improved resource efficiency guidelines and to test the validity of heuristics Two key contributions and innovations are emphasised. The first is the formulation of empirically grounded guidelines based on key product characteristics. The second is the formulation and testing of BM-LCA, a method for assessing decoupling business from environmental impact.

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