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For A True Measure of Product Sustainability, Include Durability

Posted by Eliza Clark, guest columnist

Dec 4, 2015 3:16:32 PM

A look at produce sustainability and transparency.

It is an exciting time to be working in building product development. After decades of research, testing, more research and exhaustive product development, the products coming to market today represent the best in generations. Based on this some believe that sustainability can be found only in a new product.Yet while next generation products may offer advancements in energy efficiency or ecofriendly materials, extending the performance and durability of older products may, in some cases, actually be the greener choice.

Durability refers to how long a manufacturer expects their product to consistently perform as it was designed and built to do. While there are plenty of industry experts who can give you an average lifespan for just about anything, what they haven’t figured out yet is how that durability and lifespan factors into measuring the product’s sustainability.

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Take windows, for example. At Andersen, we estimate our windows’ life cycles in terms of decades. That’s not just because we build them well, but also because we place equal importance on window care and maintenance. Much like the routine maintenance a driver may perform on a car, windows require some simple but important care that allows high-quality windows to function like new for decades.

The concept of maintenance is sometimes lost in consumers’ disposable mindsets. Over the course of a couple generations our buying behaviors have changed. Now, without giving it a second thought, we quickly discard one functional item in favor of a replacement that promises to perform better. (Who among us doesn’t have a drawer full of “old” cell phones?) For better or worse, our consumption-oriented society places little value on the long-term use of a product. When considering the kind of impact this repetitive consumption has on our natural resources, though, that mindset has to change.

Think about the full range of environmental impacts associated with just one product over its life span. In our business, replacing a window doesn’t just mean creating waste by removing and discarding the old window. There are other significant impacts related to the new product, including the materials, energy and emissions associated with manufacturing, transporting and installing the replacement window.

The step in the analysis that we’ve been missing to-date is weighing the new product’s sustainable benefits against the resource savings associated with extending the length of the current product. In other words, in the case of windows, replacement may still make sense if the old window’s energy efficiency or functional performance is poor. Our next challenge, therefore, is how to include product durability as part of a measure of overall sustainability. Doing so will prevent unnecessary waste and preserve valuable resources for current and future generations. We don’t want to discourage sustainable product development and purchases – rather, It’s long past time to incorporate durability when measuring sustainability.. For companies, it will offer one more proof point of the quality their products offer. For consumers, it brings validation to a purchasing decision.

 Eliza Clark is Director of Sustainability at Andersen Corporation

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