measuring sustainability

measuring sustainability


Goal: Decide which kind of sustainability measurement method you want to use.


There are many ways to measure environmental and/or social costs and benefits of your invention. Life-cycle assessment (LCA), GreenScreen, and the many product certification systems like Cradle to Cradle, EPEAT, EnergyStar, FSC, Fair Trade, etc., exist so that product designers, business owners, and consumers can understand the impacts of their choices. Each measurement method has  their advantages and disadvantages. How can you decide which is best to use?

The motivation for using one measurement tool over another depends on:

– What do you care about measuring? (Environmental impacts, social impacts, global vs. local, etc.)

– How will you weigh the factors you’re measuring? (Is energy use worth twice as much as toxins produced? Do you want weights decided by experts?)

– How convenient is the process of measurement? (We all have limited time and money, you can’t measure everything.)

– How much certainty will you need to be credible? (You can estimate your impacts in five minutes, but how accurate is that? And do you need customers to trust it, or investors to take it seriously?)

Using different measurement tools will often change your design priorities, so it’s worth considering the best fit for you, or trying multiple measurement systems.


Three measurement systems you might consider are Life Cycle assessment (LCA), Cradle to Cradle certification, and EPEAT certification. To choose between these, consider:

  • LCA is universally applicable to any product or service. Cradle to Cradle only applies to physical products and is only feasible for products with few ingredients, such as furniture, food, clothing, or building materials. EPEAT technically only applies to computers and selected other product categories, but can also be used to guide design of other consumer electronics.
  • LCA requires relatively large amounts of information about the product or service and can be very time-consuming to perform. EPEAT certification is a faster, simpler checklist. Cradle to Cradle is also a faster, simpler checklist, though gathering some of the data required can be time-consuming.
  • If the market you are selling into values a specific certification, such as Cradle to Cradle or EPEAT, you should use that.
  • If you have the time, measuring with multiple systems gives you richer perspective.


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