Graz, Austria, April 4, 2019: How sustainable is a product or a service? This question is becoming increasingly important when consumers make purchasing decisions. This is why companies, more than ever, are also considering how the products and services they offer can align with this demand. However, what criteria allow them to reliably assess the ecological and social sustainability of a product for the duration of its life cycle and beyond? How can they collect the data required for this assessment? And how can the data be used appropriately so as to help companies decide on how to offer their products and services in a way that is socially and environmentally sustainable? The Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable Product Management in a Circular Economy, which was ceremoniously opened at the University of Graz on April 4, 2019, seeks to answer these questions with its research. It is financed jointly by the participating companies and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs and is collaborating with innovative partners, including iPoint.
Digitalization as a Driver of Sustainable Products
"It is no longer just a question of using profits socially, but of whether we produce and operate in a susainable way. In order to evaluate the sustainability of a product over its entire life cycle, a large amount of data has to be processed. The methods of digitalization also offer new opportunities here," says Dr. Margarete Schramböck, from the Austrian Federal Minister for Digitization and Business Location. "The new knowledge can be used to make products sustainable right from the start. In this way, digitalization once again contributes to the future viability of our society".
The Role of the Circular Economy
The concept of the circular economy is currently of great interest to the public. It refers to a system based on regeneration. Its goal is to reduce emissions, waste, and the use of resources, e.g, via maintenance services as well as reusing and recycling products. “However, this does not mean that a circular economy always fulfills the demands for social and ecological sustainability”, as sustainability researcher Rupert Baumgartner, the head of the new CD Laboratory at the University of Graz, points out.
Assessing the sustainability of a product such as a smartphone confronts us with a complex interrelationship of a wide variety of factors. The assessment begins with the extraction of raw materials in developing countries and the impact it has on the environment and the socioeconomic situation of the people working there. Then the conditions under which it was produced have to be considered. Finally, a smartphone usually travels a great distance, e.g., from Asia to Europe. All along the journey, emissions are produced and energy is used. This does not stop even when the device’s life cycle has come to an end: the process usually just begins anew. Most of the ‘discarded’ smartphones end up back in the countries of the southern hemisphere, where the precious raw materials built into their components are recycled so that they can be reused again.
Lab Creates Scientific Basis for Sustainability Assessments
Over the next few years, Rupert Baumgartner and his team wish to shed light on the convoluted web of global supply chains and to develop a scientifically solid basis for sustainability assessments of products and services in a circular economy. The new laboratory is working in collaboration with Altstoff Recycling Austria Aktiengesellschaft (ARA) and iPoint.
Their research will begin by collecting information through surveys of companies wishing to further develop in the sense of a circular economy; the focus lies on the automotive and packaging industries. “We would like to know what company data are collected that could be interesting for a sustainability assessment”, explains Josef Schöggl, a researcher at the CD Laboratory. Examples he mentions are “energy consumption, emissions, the origin of raw materials, working conditions, waste, transport distances”. Another question to be answered is whether the information gathered thus far is sufficient or if important information still needs to be collected.
After determining which criteria a sustainable product has to fulfill, Baumgartner and his team will develop efficient methods for collecting, integrating, and analyzing the relevant data: “Digitalization provides researchers with many new options. We will investigate what the Internet of Things and Big Data can do for us in terms of our goals.”
Ultimately, research should benefit the economy and, by extension, society as a whole in a practical way. “We hope the knowledge we acquire will provide a basis for the development of practical tools which can serve as a decision-making aid for companies wishing to achieve sustainable product management in a circular economy”, stresses Baumgartner.
About Christian Doppler Laboratories
In Christian Doppler Laboratories, high-level, application-oriented basic research is pursued, and expert scientists cooperate with innovative companies. The Christian Doppler Research Association is an international best practice example for promoting this collaboration. Christian Doppler Laboratories are financed jointly by public funding and the participating companies. The most important public sponsor is the Austrian Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs (BMDW).
Univ.-Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Dr. Rupert Baumgartner
University of Graz
Institute of Systems Sciences, Innovation and Sustainability Research
Tel.: 0043 (0)316 380 3237