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A Matter of “Life Cycle” Perspective

18 April 2016
ISO 14001:2015 places new emphasis on managing environmental aspects throughout the life cycle of a product or service. This article explains what is expected, where to start and what can be achieved with a little life cycle perspective.

There is now a ‘two-way street’ related to aspects and impacts. Not only does an organisation have to address the ways in which it impacts the environment, which has always been a consideration within the standard, now it must consider how the environment is responding to these changes along with the use of a life cycle approach.

Life cycle perspective

There is nothing radical about a product or a service having a ‘life cycle’ in terms of its environmental impact. What is new, however, is its incorporation into the requirements of ISO 14001:2015.

Clause 6.1.2 specifies that organisations must take a life cycle perspective when determining their environmental impacts. This is a significant change from the previous standard and requires the organisation to think carefully about the different stages of the life cycle of its products and consider where it can exert influence and control.

This raises a number of questions that those with environmental responsibilities have to address:

  • What does this mean in terms of environmental aspects analysis?
  • What if we don’t have responsibility for part of the life-cycle?
  • How detailed do I have to be and what are the boundaries?
  • Where does our responsibility start and end?

The good news is that the standard does not require a comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis. Annex A states: “a simple consideration of the life cycle stages which can be controlled or influenced by the organization is sufficient”.

Supply Chain Control

The limiting factor to life cycle thinking is whether your organisation has control or influence up and down your supply chain.

Taking procurement for example: it is often argued that the further up the supply chain you go, the less the control or influence you have. This is not always the case as organisations sometimes need to specify precise grades and types of raw materials. They may also specify environmental considerations in parts of the process but will not have full control of every facet of upstream organisations’ activities.

This will particularly apply to sub-contractors and increasingly organisations will need to able to demonstrate that environmental considerations have been incorporated into purchasing decisions made regarding suitability of such arrangements.

This will need to be managed partly through the linking of environmental objectives to the organisation´s processes and ensuring that they take into account internal and external factors as well as compliance obligations. These should include all outsourced activities, such as transport, packaging and disposal, as well as the procurement of goods and services.

Also remember that the standard makes allowances for the degree of control or influence. Appendix A.6.1.2 of the standard states that ‘thinking carefully about the life cycle stages that can be controlled or influenced is sufficient’.

Generally, in-house environmental aspects can be fully controlled whereas an organisation is likely have limited influence on the use and end of life treatment of its products and services. As with all areas of the new standards, the main consideration is the continual improvement in the system leading to improvement in environmental performance.

As assessors, we would therefore expect to see some degree of prioritisation in this area just as we have previously with ‘traditional’ environmental aspects. There is no need to try and change everything overnight!
One method would be to include the ability to control or influence as a contributing factor to the aspect evaluation which would allow the maximisation of improvement compared to resource usage. Objectives would then be set for the improvement of the significant aspects identified.

Enhanced environmental performance

Life cycle ideas however go beyond minimizing the overall adverse environmental impact of a product or service and should ultimately embrace a search for innovation, opportunity and promotion of a product’s positive contribution i.e. the widest possible search for improvement.

Cherished beliefs or ways of working may have to be revisited and new ways of collaborating managed for a newly defined common aim of improved environmental performance throughout the entire value chain. 
If these life cycle requirements are taken seriously by organisations,  the opportunity exists to shine a spotlight on some of the less sustainable products, either redesigning them, or removing  them altogether – benefiting consumers, organisations, and most crucially the environment. This is at the heart of ISO 14001; enhanced environmental performance.