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Sustainability Mythbusters:
Is Reducing Product Energy Use Always the Best Solution?

It's easy to use 'common sense' and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or truth. In today’s episode: product energy use.

e and i devices are becoming more and more present in our lives: Every type of consumer good is becoming ’intelligent,’ with bright and sometime colourful displays or added communication functions that allow control with a smartphone or tablet.

The consequence is ever-growing global electricity consumption, which in turns puts pressure, through labelling or regulation, on manufacturers to design lower-burden products. At first thought, reducing product energy use sounds like a good idea. But does lowering energy consumption of individual products lead to improvement in their environmental impact overall?

Forgetting the Function

Benefits to improving the electrical burden of a specific product might seem like a no-brainer. But consider this: If this reduction leads to downgrading the main capabilities of the product, it would probably lead to overall losses.

A good example can be seen with tumble-dryers: To maximise energy savings, low-energy dryers must not lose their effectiveness in drying clothes. Otherwise, users will run them twice for each load of laundry, which probably surpasses the savings obtained with one run.

Intelligent Electronics

Modern electronics with more efficient software can have a more positive result on the environment than simply reduced energy use.

First, they often integrate the functions of several products. A smartphone, for instance, provides the functions of a phone, an organiser, and an mp3 player.

Second, and maybe more important, smart products can be integrated into advanced systems and used to reduce the energy of the entire system. A smart meter, for instance, can interact with the heating system so that the energy spent is exactly what’s required for comfort, not more. Overall, the whole system will benefit from energy savings, whatever the consumption of the smart meter itself.

... But Does That Intelligence Last?

Generally, that comes at a cost. Adding ‘smart’ capabilities to an electronic assembly is usually done by improving its communication functions, which requires powerful integrated circuits that cost a large amount of energy to manufacture and function. This leads to an increased impact for each product.

Moreover, devices with complex capacities are usually very sensitive to malfunctions, since components can be crucial for all functions. With separate devices, a component is necessarily only essential for one function. In addition, complex devices are often subject to faster obsolescence.

That smartphone we mentioned probably has a higher energy consumption than a simple cell phone. It could help save energy if it replaced three other types of products, but only if they can all run for 10 years without any problems. However, if the smartphone only lasts three years, you would need to buy more than three of them to cover the 10 years, leading to a higher amount of energy used in total.

Product Energy Use Must Always Be Reduced: Myth Or Not?

Status: Busted.

As usual with LCA, all pre-conceived assumptions must be considered in terms of the function of the product. Look beyond one component, and to the entire lifecycle.

The value of reducing the absolute amount of electricity needed to run a product must be related to the function of the product and its lifetime. If the product has extended functionality or a different lifetime, you could come to a completely different conclusion.

Uncover More Sustainability Myths

See other episodes of Sustainability Mythbusters:

Is Minimizing Transportation Always Good?

Are Bio-Based Products Always Preferable to Oil-Based?

Is Packaging Always a ‘Bad Guy’?


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