New laboratory for circular economy 

How sustainable is a product or service?


A question that is becoming increasingly important in purchasing decisions. Correspondingly, companies are more than ever considering how they can better take this aspect into account with their offers. But what are the criteria by which environmental and social sustainability can be reliably assessed over the entire life span of a product and beyond? How can the data required for this evaluation be collected? And how can they be meaningfully used to help companies decide on the social and environmental design of their offerings? Answering these questions is the aim of the research in the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable Product Management in a Circular Economy, which is being jointly financed by the participating companies and the Federal Ministry for Digitization and Business Location and opened on 4 April 2019 at the University of Graz.

“It is no longer just about profits being used socially, but about producing and managing sustainably. In order to evaluate the sustainability of a product over its entire lifecycle, a large amount of data has to be processed. The methods of digitization also offer new opportunities here, “says Dr. Margarete Schramböck, Federal Minister for Digitization and Business Location. “The new knowledge can be used to make products sustainable from the start. Thus, digitization once again contributes to the future viability of our society. “

The circular economy is a concept that currently arouses great interest. This refers to a system based on regeneration. This should reduce the use of resources, emissions and waste. Ways to do this include maintenance, reuse or recycling of products. “But that does not mean that the circular economy always meets the requirements of social and environmental sustainability,” says sustainability researcher Rupert Baumgartner, head of the new CD laboratory at the University of Graz.

To judge the sustainability of a product, such as a smartphone, one is confronted with a complex relationship of many different factors. This begins with the promotion of raw materials in developing countries with their consequences for the environment and the social conditions of the workers employed there. Added to this are the conditions in production. In most cases, a smartphone will still travel a long way, for example from Asia to Europe. Everywhere emissions are generated, energy is consumed. And when the lifespan of the device has ended, the process starts more or less all over again. Most of the “discarded” smartphones are shipped back to countries of the global South, where the valuable raw materials they use to recover them are reused.


Create scientific foundations for sustainability assessment

In the coming years, Rupert Baumgartner and his team will shed light on the network of global supply chains and develop scientifically sound foundations for the sustainability assessment of products and services in a circular economy. Partners in the CD Laboratory are Altstoff Recycling Austria Aktiengesellschaft (ARA) and iPoint, an international software solutions company for compliance and sustainable product management.
The first step is to collect information through surveys of companies wishing to develop towards the circular economy, with a focus on the automotive and packaging industries. “We would like to know which data that could be of interest for a sustainability assessment is collected by the companies”, explains Josef Schöggl, researcher at the CD Laboratory, citing as examples “energy requirements, emissions, origin of raw materials, working conditions, waste, transport routes “. It will also be determined whether the previous records are sufficient or important information has not yet been collected.

After clarifying the question of which requirements a sustainable product has to fulfill, Baumgartner and his team will develop efficient methods for collecting, networking and evaluating the relevant data: “Digitalisation opens up completely new possibilities for research here. We will explore what the Internet of Things and Big Data can do for our purposes. “
After all, research should also have an application-oriented benefit for the economy – and subsequently for society as a whole. “With our findings, we want to create the basis for the development of practical tools that companies can use to help them decide on sustainable product management in the circular economy,” emphasizes Baumgartner.

Translated by google


Gudrun Pichler
University of Graz