Is this Sustainable ?

Dr. L. Ramakrishnan

Forum Moderator
After many years of study and experience, I have come to an understanding that any product or activity which is environmentally sound is economically sound too. In simple terms the total life-cycle cost of an environmentally sound product or service is invariably lower than that of other similar products or services (which are not environmentally sound) providing the same function.

In one of the recent discussions I had with a group of experts interested in sustainability issues, one member presented a counter argument. She said that an organically grown black cotton saree (a kind of clothe women wear in India) costs Rs.8000 (approximately US $ 128) compared to a similar, but not organically grown cotton saree, which costs hardly Rs. 500 (approximately US $ 8). (I am referring to COST not PRICE). Hence her argument was that environmentally sound product need not be cheaper than the conventional product. That is, for providing the same function (of dressing), the environmentally sound product is costlier than the regular product available in the market.

While on the face of it, this hypothesis appears sound, there is an inherent flaw in the argument. Does "organically grown" make the cotton "environmentally sound"? What is the qualification to call "organically grown" cotton an "environmentally sound" raw material ? No doubt, it appeals to the mind that "chemical free" should mean environmentally sound. But if one goes through all the processes that are carried out to "de-toxify" the land (i.e. shift the issue somewhere else) and the efforts to make the "produce" organic and if one has to carry out an LCA, one would realize that after all the process is not that environmentally sound compared to the conventional method of growing cotton. I am ready to be "corrected" if someone comes out with an LCA study that proves that "organically grown cotton" is environmentally sound compared to "conventionally grown cotton".

Unless it is scientifically proven through LCA studies, such products can not be considered as "environmentally sound" (or as green products, as the popular literature refers to such products); at this "cost" I am doubtful if such products are sustainable. Such products may satisfy the niche market and not the common man.

Is this a case of "green wash" ?

While on the subject of environmentally sound products (people also use the term "environmentally friendly", a term which has to be avoided to refer to these products), I would like to mention that a re-look through a proper LCA will make us review our "biased" views on "plastics bags" and "bio-degradable wastes".


A layman question, what constitutes an environmentally sound car? I wonder can an environmentally sound car that is designed to possess competitive safety, performance, durability, reliability attributes be manufactured and sold at a cheaper price?

Dr. L. Ramakrishnan

Forum Moderator
Thank you for asking this question. The key phrase in my blog related to your query is "total life-cycle cost". Price depends on the market and hence is not a reflection of the cost.

Now I shall try to explain on the parameters that you have mentioned as to how an environmentally sound car can be lower in total cost than its competition that is not environmentally sound. What I am writing here is too simplistic (for an elaborate answer one should use environmental costing principles and LCA); but its purpose is to bring out the concept.

Safety: cost reduction due to reduced "accidents, loss of life, loss of productive hours/days" etc.

Performance: Cost reduction due to reduced use of resources (say petrol) - cost reduction due to improved efficiency

Durability: Cost reduction due to the longer use of materials that have gone into making the car; i.e. reduced use of material/car/year. When we use a resource (especially a non-renewable resource) for a longer time to provide a particular function, we spread the environmental cost over a longer period and hence the cost per unit time per unit function provided comes down. The function provided by the car is "mobility".

Reliability: If a product is reliable one maintains low stock of parts for repair and maintenance; hence maintenance cost comes down / inventory cost comes down.

As you see, in each of the attributes given by you, there is an inherent cost reduction possibility. Some of these are captured under "opportunity cost".

My experience is that environmentally sound products can not be sustainable unless they are economically attractive too. That is why the "design for environment" (DfE) is called by some as "Eco-Design" meaning ecologically sound and economically viable design. Car design for an environmentally sound care is no exception.

(just as an added information, all the efforts in the factory to reduce cost, viz., reducing waste, improving energy efficiency, reducing material consumption, reducing rejections etc., are inherently environmentally sound actions; there is a link between "cost" and "environmentally sound action")

By the way, there is no absolute environmentally sound car; the soundness is based on comparison with other similar products in the market. Environmental soundness is decided by evaluating total life-cycle impacts (LCI) of products being compared. This can be done at the design stage and the LCI can be brought down by using some of the design principles that I have mentioned in the blog. The list I have given above is NOT exhaustive.
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