SCIENCE-BASED METRICS FOR PRODUCT SUSTAINABILITY ASSESSMENT
Barbara C. Lippiatt
Consumers and manufacturers need compelling metrics, tools, and data supporting investments in sustainable products. Todays marketplace is fraught with sustainability claims that are often based on incomplete, anecdotal evidence that is difficult to reproduce and defend. The claims suffer from two main weaknesses: (1) products upon which claims are based are not necessarily green in a science-based, life-cycle assessment (LCA) sense and (2) their measures of cost-effectiveness often are not based on standard methods for measuring economic worth. The problem is hard to solve because methods, tools, and robust data for sustainability performance measurement are not widely available. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is addressing these needs by developing rigorous metrics and tools for scientifically assessing the life-cycle economic and environmental performance of products. Economic performance is measured using standard life-cycle costing methods. Environmental performance is measured using LCA methods that assess the carbon footprint of products as well as 11 other sustainability metrics including fossil fuel depletion, smog, water use, habitat alteration, indoor air quality, and human health. These environmental and economic performance metrics are applied to assess the sustainability of 230 building products in the NIST Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) tool. The approach is illustrated with a BEES case study of five floor covering products.