What is Life Cycle Thinking?

Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) is about going beyond the traditional focus on production site and manufacturing processes to include environmental, social and economic impacts of a product over its entire life cycle.

The main goals of LCT are to reduce a product’s resource use and emissions to the environment as well as improve its socio-economic performance through its life cycle. This may facilitate links between the economic, social and environmental dimensions within an organization and through its entire value chain.

A product life cycle can begin with the extraction of raw materials from natural resources in the ground and the energy generation. Materials and energy are then part of production, packaging, distribution, use, maintenance, and eventually recycling, reuse, recovery or final disposal.

In each life cycle stage there is the potential to reduce resource consumption and improve the performance of products.

A typical product lifecycle diagramme

Life Cycle Approaches

Life cycle thinking has provided a conceptual basis for moving the sustainability agenda forward in the public and private sector to assist in decision-making at all levels regarding policy and product development, production, procurement, and final disposal. Life cycle approaches can be used in all sectors, and can examine key impact categories and indicators, assessing the environmental and social impacts (e.g. Environmental LCA and Social LCA, carbon footprint, water footprint, etc.), as well as the ultimate effects of these on all three key sustainability pillars (e.g. life cycle sustainability assessment).

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

LCA is a methodological internationally standardised method. It quantifies all relevant emissions and resources consumed and the related environmental and health impacts and resource depletion issues that are associated with any goods or services. Life Cycle Assessment considers a product’s full life cycle: from the extraction of resources, through production, use, and recycling, up to the disposal of remaining waste. LCA studies help to avoid resolving one environmental problem while creating others. Life Cycle Assessment is therefore a powerful decision support tool necessary to make consumption and production more sustainable.

Life Cycle Management

Life cycle thinking is made operational through Life Cycle Management (LCM). This management approach puts the tools and methodologies within the life cycle thinking basket into practice. It is a product management system that helps enterprises to minimize the environmental and social burdens associated with their product or product portfolio during its entire life cycle.

The integration of LCM into enterprise operations is similar to that of the ISO 9000 and 14000 standards in that it favours a cyclical plan-do-check-act approach, and thereby provides a basis for continual improvement. The elements of Life Cycle Management are shown in the visual. Find insights and inspiration from our set of success stories on how life cycle thinking, management, and approaches are being developed and implemented in practice around the world.

Elements of Life Cycle Management

elements of life cycle management

Benefits of Life Cycle Approaches

The impacts of all life cycle stages need to be considered comprehensively by citizens, companies and governments, when they make decisions on consumption and production patterns, policies and management strategies.


At a macro level, life cycle approaches avoid shifting problems from one life cycle stage to another, from one geographic area to another and from one environmental medium (for example air quality) to another (for example water or land). At a micro level, they enable individuals (e.g., product designers, service providers, government agents) to make choices for the longer term and with consideration of all environmental media (i.e., air, water, land).

All in all, life cycle approaches can bring several benefits:

  • Incorporating life cycle and sustainability management will improve image and brand value for both world market players as well as smaller suppliers and producers.
  • By engaging in supportive programmes and initiatives and implementing life-cycle approaches, governments can show global responsibility and governance by sharing and disseminating sustainability options world- wide.
  • Life cycle approaches will help point consumption in a more sustainable direction by offering better information for purchasing, transport systems, energy sources, to guide consumers

In fact, decision making at different levels is already based on the life cycle approach, for instance… … Consumer purchasing decisions via ecolabels, or company reports on environmental and social issues. … Business design of products and services via Life Cycle Assessments studies, Design for Environment, Total Cost of Ownership calculations, or management systems that are orientated toward products or facilities. … Government policy making by involving a wide range of stakeholders (e.g. via Product Panels) or through Integrated Product Policy (IPP) approaches.