Q. Dear Umbra,

I am a consumer who has recently convinced a friend of mine to green his business. I am now in charge of doing all of the research. My question is, how do I go about assessing the life cycle of various products? … Do you know of such a service/website? I have tried to Google things but it is very hard to get side by side comparisons. Also, do you know of a good website that rates random products according to their environmental impact?

Tamara A.
Munich, Germany

woman holding applesData, people. We need data.iStockA. Dearest Tamara,

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Welcome to my life. If there were such a website, I would keep it secret, so that I seemed to have a mysterious font of knowledge. Instead we have floors 2B-4B, vast subterranean shelves stretching in to the distance and little cubbies filled with gerbils manipulating abaci. It’s quite dusty down here.

You appear to seek two separate assessments. A “Life Cycle Assessment” in the environmental sense is an examination of an object or action from birth to death, resulting in a quantified measurement of its total environmental impacts. An LCA does not usually include an evaluation of the quality of an object. In a comparison between cloth and disposable diapers, the LCA might mention that disposable diapers are less durable, i.e., single-use items, but this is inherent to the product category. So you are asking for two things: one, to know which of various comparable categories is environmentally superior (e.g., bus vs. light rail, paper vs. plastic); and then within those categories, which individual product is best (e.g., Friend of the Planet Pencils vs. Feel Really Guilty Pencils).

For the daily stuff, the product evaluation is easier to find than an LCA. People like to read product reviews, so there are many services providing reviews, and many online discussions. I fell into the black hole of European Clothes Washer message boards a couple years ago — men passionately discussing the various benefits of their German machines. Where do people find the time?

The side-by-side evaluation is less common than “We Like This!” Grist does comparative product reviews. Other sites with a green review component are the Green Guide and Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices. I’ve also noticed that Amazon consumer reviews are enthusiastic and prolific. There is a new site, GoodGuide, that looks interesting and like it would suit your needs, but it is still under development.

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I’ll just give you a few suggestions for formal LCA sites, because these are denser. A big behemoth is the Carnegie Mellon EIO-LCA site, which “estimates the materials and energy resources required for, and the environmental emissions resulting from, activities in our economy.” I’ve talked about the EIO-LCA before, and using it requires some work on your part, to figure out what parts of the (U.S.) economy the activity involves and then do some math. The benefit of EIO-LCA is being able to estimate emissions even if you can find no formal comparative LCA. Here is an LCA database — just enter your search terms and have a party! And here’s another that I’ve yet to use.

There is no simple answer to what you are asking, but in the several years since I started writing this column, these services have proliferated. I believe that in a few more years all knowledge will be laid at our fingertips. Umbra has spoken.


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