University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise

The Issue

  1. Half of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from the production and use of products, making sustainable production and consumption powerful strategies in reducing these and other environmental emissions.
  2. China and other developing countries are becoming more affluent and their consumption patterns will increasingly mimic consumption patterns of the U.S. and other developed countries, thereby increasing impact.
  3. Supply chains are global, so even incremental changes in product environmental performance can make a big impact globally.

The Problem

The goal of achieving sustainable consumption in the marketplace requires a series of decisions by both producers and purchasers. However, a number of challenges face companies:

  • Traditional product life cycle assessments face data challenges, are time and resource consuming, and are often performed in isolation.
  • Differences in data and methods can lead to conflicting life cycle assessment results, limiting comparability and effective decision making.
  • The “buy green” market is cluttered with competing environmental claims that vary in accuracy and scope.

Both producers and purchasers need to know where the likely environmental hotspots in products and supply chains are, and which existing procurement signals indicate real and substantial environmental improvements.

Without this information, the goal of sustainable consumption is impossible to achieve because we may be focusing resources on products with attributes that may not have a big impact on the environmental performance, or have a worse impact.

Our Approach

Our goal is to develop a tool to analyze how environmental claims impact a product’s life cycle environmental performance, informing both producers and purchasers. We do this by finding streamlined methods to predict emissions hotspots in a product’s life cycle, and connect these hotspots to product processes to evaluate the environmental performance of product attributes and claims.

Specifically, we develop this tool by:

  1. Identifying emissions hotspots in product life cycles.  We work with environmental input/output models and existing LCA studies to develop hotspot identification methods
  2. Collecting ecolabels and other environmental claims applicable to specific product categories.


A tool that identifies the attributes that most significantly reduces environmental impact will help companies and product designers focus their efforts on the largest emission sources, saving time and assessment costs. These cost savings will further encourage companies to engage in sustainable product procurement efforts, resulting in measurable environmental impact reduction.

Potential Impact

  1. The U.S. Government Services Administration, the Consumer Goods Forum, Walmart, and other organizations are all looking to use their purchasing power to reduce emissions in their supply chains.
  2. Standard and Ecolabel Developers can use this tool and life cycle thinking to develop more robust and quantifiable labels and certification standards.
  3. Non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups can use the tool’s methods to evaluate companies’ environmental performance.
NiSE is a program of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

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