Looking into the Life Cycle Management Agenda

When referring to procedures within life cycle management (LCM), it is important to be clear about our propositions. There is an evolution in language that includes mention of life cycle, value chains, supply chains, materials cycles, circular flows and so on. In part this reflects the growth of life cycle type studies, processes and evaluations, but it soon spills over also into operational management concepts. Even the notion of 'life' of a material or product is not fixed. And if we are concerned with both upstream and downstream aspects of company activities we can no longer refer simply to 'supply chain', in which only the upstream focus is considered. In this paper we have chosen to refer to the 'value chain' since it covers multiple product life cycles of a company. Value chain can better include non-material and non-environmental values such as social appreciation and cost as well as management dimensions that are directly related to company activities and not to the engineering aspects of a product. All these are important considerations as the notion of sustainable consumption and production becomes more and more a question of operationalization in a business context.

So how can we manage the value chain from a sustainability perspective? The breadth of the issues of popular concern, together with the complex nature of the materials chains from which they arise, leads to a serious management issues (Balkau and Sonnemann 2011). As well as ensuring economic viability, managers need to take into account a host of externalities, many of them from outside the corporation. Attempts to link economic self-interest (i.e. efficiency gains) with these externalities has only been partially successful as some issues clearly represent a non-recoverable cost. It is easy to speak of the 'triple bottom line'; operationalizing it for extended value chains remains a challenge for individuals and enterprises alike.

A part of LCM is concerned with improving profitability of corporations. However, many LCM objectives are directly drawn from the sustainability agenda,

i.e. building a better future for us all. While the main components – social, environmental and economic – are now universally accepted, the specific goals to be achieved within them are subject to wide interpretation. This is especially the case for the social components of labor practices, human rights and cultural and intellectual property. Even environmental standards vary widely.

The term life cycle management is currently applied to a wide variety of initiatives that show major differences in approach (Remmen et al. 2007). Objectives vary widely, from optimizing a product to saving the planet. Much of LCM can be seen as a fusion of supply chain management (SCM) and extended producer responsibility (EPR), using life cycle assessment (LCA) and other assessments as input. But while LCA and a variety of corporate management tools have been codified, LCM itself is still subject to varying definitions, interpretations and practices according to the viewpoints and objectives of the principal actors (Seuring 2004). It does not help that the notion of sustainable development is itself evolving, resulting in shifting targets for any management endeavor.

In fact, we are seeing several approaches to LCM evolving side by side. Thus companies unilaterally managing the upstream dimension of their supply lines work in parallel with sector-wide initiatives that operate under an agreed chain-of-custody framework that includes codes of conduct, independent review and sanctions for non-performance. Some progressive companies do both simultaneously, albeit not always for the same products.

While we observe that LCM has already been extensively used, closer examination reveals that many of these applications lack the rigor that is a feature of LCA itself. Supply chains are kept deliberately short to enable more effective management control, and objectives are reduced to a few parameters that reflect current corporate viewpoints rather than the aggregate needs of the environment. A common deficiency of many LCM exercises is that they often overlook the importance of the downstream consumer where much of the sustainability impact actually occurs. In short, for practical reasons much LCM lacks both depth and breadth.

 
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