Organizing nature: An extended use of LCA for assessing the environmental performance of the handling of material flows
Conference contribution, 2009
The Life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology emphasizes the flow of materials. Each of these flows often spans many companies or organizations. Managers are thus challenged to take into account material flows outside their own organization, and this issue is studied within Life cycle management, LCM. Hopefully contributing to LCM research, this PhD project aims at understanding the connections between different aspects of organizing in the companies and the handling of material flows.
RESEARCH FRAMEWORK – Environmental assessment of organizing
Managing the material flows goes via the people working with the flows in question. In order to be a manager for these persons (including accounting for persons involved outside your own company) it could then be of interest to know how they interact with the material flows. Since there is currently no established methodology for understanding interactions with organizing in the environmental and technical research or for understanding the material flows in management studies, the framework Environmental assessment of organizing (EAO) was created.
EAO studies different organizational aspects connected to the technologies that handle the material flows. EAO has been developed at our research division, Environmental Systems Analysis, at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, during the last decade, directed by Associate Professor Henrikke Baumann. It uses LCA as a base for environmental assessment, and is also rooted in established social sciences, e.g. Organization theory and Actor network theory (ANT). A couple of empirical studies performed within EAO have shown the relevance of the perspective, while investigating the usefulness of a few different methodological approaches. (Baumann 2004, 2008)
As an example, within EAO, in similar and adjacent residential buildings, Birgit Brunklaus has found variations of up to 50% in water consumption. The suggested explanation was that in the property management of one building regular controls and planned upgrades of the technology involved were performed, while an aim for cost rationalization in another management was realized by only performing maintenance of the technology when critical situations occurred. The methods used for these findings were empirically grounded characterizations for the organizational part of the study, and LCA's spanning a longer time period for the environmental part. (Brunklaus 2005, 2008)
The contribution of my recently initiated PhD project to the research on material flows in general and to EAO in particular, is located at several levels. The main focus is the search of an enhanced understanding of the organizing of environmentally impacting material flows. Prescriptions for managers will not be the objective, but the constitution and characteristics of more and less environmentally sound organizing and management. This research will broaden the empirical coverage of EAO by investigating several products and services in society, and one or two of these in depth. The idea of these studies is also to try to methodologically and theoretically develop EAO. It would then also be suitable to complement this formalization of EAO with a clarification of its historical place in a broader scientific context.
Following the preceding studies done within EAO, the aim of my project is to study companies in detail and critically, to develop an understanding of their organizing and its relation to environmental impact. This could – as in the previous EAO projects – be achieved by using qualitative methods such as participant observation, i.e. following employees in their daily work, complemented with interviews. This methodology is suggested in order to reveal actions that are performed by persons in a routine way, and therefore not easily possible to discover only through interviews and formal documents. Combined with LCA's, environmental impact causes will be sought.
Similar to the studies by Brunklaus mentioned above, I will study activities where the products or services produced are similar. Also, the core business of the organizations should preferably be located in Sweden. Together, this will make it easier to sort out and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the organizational aspects on the environmental performance. Therefore, and supported by the environmental challenges described in the section below, cement production and bread bakeries are candidates.
To clarify the procedure for these EAO studies, the example of cement will be used. As a starting point, environmental reports and other by law required environmental documents concerning the cement production can be used to highlight potential environmental challenges. Through the descriptive parts of these texts, organizing patterns may also become visible. An understanding of HOW this organizing is functioning will be sought through observing how e.g. maintenance personnel act to (hopefully) minimize the often high emissions levels that occur after production stops. Each maintenance person is in turn mutually dependent on other actors, e.g. those involved in the process where his or her work orders are determined and the employees at the lime stone supplier for producing lime stone of good quality and delivering it on time.
The cement industry is particularly interesting from an environmental perspective, because of its large CO2 emissions. CO2 is released in the chemical process that splits lime from lime stone and when using fossil fuels for the highly heat demanding cement burning. However, other environmental challenges also come into question in my project. E.g., a Swedish research project could not easily use technological differences between cement plants to explain significant differences in emissions levels of SO2, NOx and dust. (von Bahr et al. 2002)
Regarding bread bakeries, the use of automatic baking control has been indicated to cause larger environmental impact than manual monitoring. In the former case, bread loaves were often burned and had to be discarded when one work shift was finished and the next one started. (Sennett 1998)
BUSINESS AND POLICY RELEVANCE
A research proposal for increased understanding of the organizing around environmentally impacting material flows, has been proposed in this abstract. Focus is put on social actors without diminishing the role of the technologies used or of nature. This could hopefully be useful for company managers as well as for policy makers, who both might need to be better informed about the companies’ realities when handling environmental issues.
actor-network theory (ANT)
environmental assessment of organising (EAO)
life cycle assessment (LCA)