When we want to know how sustainable any specific product really is, manufacturers, designers and specifiers, have generally relied on obvious, easy to measure things. Unfortunately we are learning life isn’t that simple.

Our approaches in the past have been haphazard at best. We have used a grab bag of indicators we thought represented the most important issues and suited measurement, such as energy and water efficiency, waste, recycling, certification of timber, rapidly renewable, recycled or certified content, and so on.

However, without evaluating whole-of-life impacts, it is easy to make decisions that move a larger burden elsewhere out of sight, or beyond our attention, as is the case when banning incandescent light bulbs to promote more energy efficient lamps such as fluorescents without implementing mandatory recovery of the highly toxic mercury present in all fluorescent lamps and tubes and allowing them to go to landfill to pollute downstream soil and waterways forever.

Another example is promoting recycled products as an end in itself. It’s a laudable strategy, but it is not uniformly beneficial across all products. While there is no doubt recycling has resource consumption, landfill reduction and pollution benefits, there are offsetting transport impacts and the complexity of globalised trade where some products may travel three or four times from country to country for processing and reprocessing that makes assessing the benefits and impacts of recycling far more complex than it has in the past.

Depending on how and where recycled products are transported and how long the supply chains are, the more significant an issue the impacts of recycling become. Furthermore, how we decide which benefit or impact is more important?

Quantifying the inherent complexities and tradeoffs in sustainability is not easy. Fortunately life cycle analysis (LCA) has developed over the last 30 years or so to assist in this process. LCA is the process of considering all impacts of a product from its raw materials acquisition (‘cradle’) and processing, to manufacture and packaging (‘gate’) and sometimes to the end of a product’s useful life including cleaning and maintenance and potential for recycling (‘grave’ or ‘end of life fate’). Hence you will often hear about ‘Cradle to Gate’ or ‘Cradle to End of life Fate’ depending on the scope and boundaries of the LCA study.

These developments have meant that the use of LCA in the building and other sectors such as mining and agriculture has been growing strongly. This is evidenced the use of LCA (and summary LCA reports called Environmental Product declarations or EPDs) by major organisations such as Lend Lease in their $6 billion Sydney harbourside development Barangaroo and their requirement for LCA and EPDs to be provided by all suppliers and Grocon in projects like their world-leading Pixel building and Carlton Brewery site redevelopment.

Further evidence of the growth in importance of LCA is the introduction by the Green Building council of Australia of an LCA Innovation credit in their Green Star green building rating tools in Australia and overseas schemes such as LEED (US and 134 other countries) and BREEAM (UK and 40 other countries) as well as HQE (France) and DGNB (Germany and 14 other countries).

The importance of LCA and its simplified EPD reporting is that together they provide a more holistic view of products’ impacts across a wider cross section of environmental and health impacts than pass/fail ecolabel systems.

What product-specific LCA shows us is that sustainability is more complex than being able to generally talk about ‘materials’. We can meaningfully only talk about products in specific terms, because no two manufacturers’ products are the same, even though they might be described as the same material.