Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Materials life cycle assessment in Graphic Design

Life cycle assessment is also known as life cycle analysis or LCA and can be used to assess the environmental impacts of a product's life and provide a sound basis for informed decisions.
It sounds analytical and complex but with some basic theory under your belt you can apply some practical LCA to your graphic design projects.

The main stages of the life cycle usually follows the cradle-to-grave model (full life-cycle) or occasionally the cradle-to-gate model (partial life-cycle until it reaches the consumer).

This graphic shows the main stages of a cradle-to-grave full life-cycle and the resources that go into the system and waste that comes out (this can happen at every stage, not just at the end). Click on the image to zoom in.

The main stages for analysis include:

  • Raw material extraction
  • Material processing
  • Design
  • Manufacture
  • Distribution
  • Use
  • Repair/maintenance
  • Disposal

With regard to the following factors:

  • Raw Material use
  • Water use
  • Energy use
  • Waste production 
  • Waste disposal (air, land, water)
  • Transportation steps

Life Cycle Analysis can be as simple as making a basic matrix of these main stages against the factors like in the following graphic (click to enlarge):

Setting up a simple spreadsheet for each material, product, project or the options to satisfy a design brief will bring focus.  It's easy to work out what you don't know (there will be a hole in the matrix) and then you can assess the options against each other.

This is where you'll have to ask your suppliers where their products come from, and if they can source locally extracted/manufactured goods.  You'll have to do some research into what happens at the end of the line.  How do these materials get disposed of?  What actually happens to them in the environment?

I've included "cost" into the matrix even though this strictly isn't a LCA factor, because realistically - will your client stump up extra money for a more sustainable product?

Further posts will look at this in more depth - including open loop production (recycling) and evaluating options that give more useable life for each product.

If you're interested in sustainable design life-cycles check out this post about a graphic designers perspective on sustainability.


  1. Hi
    Some co-authors and I would like to get your permission to use the first diagram above in a scientific paper on life cycle analysis. We would provide a link to this blog as the source, and could add further attribution information if you wish.

    The paper is an introduction to life cycle analysis for natural resource managers in British Columbia, Canada. Also, we are proposing some guidelines for people to conduct life cycle analyses on bioenergy and other forest products.

    Please contact me at

    Thank you
    Caren Dymond
    Carbon and Climate Change Researcher
    Government of British Columbia

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