Software eco-design: why conducting a software Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

Thierry Leboucq

Eco-design consists in taking into account environmental and sanitary impacts during conception or improvement phases of a product or service. It is perceived more and more like a value creation process, in all kind of businesses and areas. This phenomenon is growing as companies get more sensitive to their share of responsibility in the future of subjects such as our planet or next generations. The other reason is firms realize the numerous benefits they can get out of such a process.

Find the complete Methodological Guide to software LCA as well as a use case on assessment of an application’s environmental impacts.

Why conducting a life cycle assessment of software?

There is actually a domain eco-design is in the introduction phase: the software world, in which most methods and best-practices remain to be written. Plus, just like in any other economical areas, the benefits perceived by the different actors from the digital world are numerous and very interesting:

Cost reduction

By trying to reduce resources or raw material needed to produce a good, eco-design also allows to decrease manufacturing costs. This principle is applicable to software as well. Indeed, in the software production phase, lowering the number of functionalities to develop, the amount of work stations to deploy, the quantity of impressions to generate or the energy needed for the software to function, is a way to reduce pollutions generated by the activity, as well as diminish software manufacturing costs.

Anticipation of environmental rules

More and more norms are inflicted to companies to make products, and more generally the economy, more virtuous environment-wise. For instance, think of Electrical and Electronic Equipment related rules (EEE), RoHS, WEEE, REACH or ErP, aiming at making products less polluting. We could also mention current or future government attempts to integrate environment deterioration costs to our economy, which as of today aren’t undertaken by companies (negative externalities): CO2 emission rights, carbon tax, etc. Now these rules are implemented and others around the corner, it is safe to say companies which already considered this eco-design issue are a step ahead have a true competitive advantage compared to other firms.

Product differentiation

« Eco-designing » is also developing a better-quality product that is at the same time more resistant, more durable and more frugal for the user; as these benefits go tightly with the impact reduction of the product on the environment and/or the extension of its active life cycle. The user can get the most of it. For example, power consumption is an actual issue for a datacenter manager, who would perceive greatly a less energy consuming software, especially in an area such as this one where “Cloud operators” keep appearing on the market and better optimize their resources usage. Also, mobile platform autonomy is a key stake for smartphones and tablets’ constructors and users, battery consumption it generates is a metrics to take into account.

Innovation factors:

The French Ministry of Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development declares on its website: (translated to English) «Eco-design is a spur for innovation, both at the product function level and the different steps of its life cycle. Having a fresh look to optimize consumptions (materials and energy) and to reduce pollutions can sometimes lead to brand new ideas for a product’s components, the way it works or the technologies it uses». This is true for software, but also for any other type of product.

Company’s image:

We are in a time consumers are more and more attentive to corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts of companies, and being actively engaged in applying software eco-design principles for sure benefits a company’s image and prestige, with positive financial impacts.

After making these observations, a group of « Green IT » experts founded the Green Code Lab which goal is to promote Software eco-design and offer tools and methods to facilitate the implementation. As part of the collaboration between Orange and GREENSPECTOR, winner of a call for projects on software eco-design launched by ADEME, both companies brought each of their expertise together to continue working, subject of the Methodological Guide to software LCA. We offer here a methodology to conduct a software Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that truly suits the objective of defining a methodology to diffuse widely in order to initiate future requests of software impact evaluation.

Indeed, LCA is a central tool that is a key element in software eco-design. We are in a case of standardized methodology (ISO14040 and ISO14044 among others) which lets you assess the environmental impacts of manufactured goods, services and processes, and this in a very complete way. Examining pollutions generated at every single stage of the product life cycle (conception, production, usage and decline) permits to not forget any of them and figure out which stage pollutes the most (the one you should focus on at first). This effort will vary depending on the company’s decisions, choices and strategical constraints. Having an overall vision of all stages also allows you to make sure a solution lowering the impact on the environment at a certain stage will not generate more pollution at another stage of the product life cycle (avoiding pollution and/or impact transfer).

As a consequence, the purpose of the Methodological Guide to software LCA is to offer a methodology to conduct a software LCA. Defining a mutual methodology to this category of products is justified by the fact that software, that are often wrongly considered as intangible, hold specific features different from the «average tangible» products. This intangibility raises questions on what is the best way to conduct such an analysis on software.

Let’s point out that the social aspect, which is one of the three pillars of sustainability and to which Green Code Lab particularly pays attention, isn’t discussed directly in this document (beside the indirect sanitary impacts). However, social LCA methodologies exist widely, and what is mentioned here is applicable and transposable to any social and societal impact analysis.

What are the goals of a software LCA?

As stated in more details in the Methodological Guide to software LCA, the first step in a software LCA is the goal and field of study definition. This step is essential as it will impact numerous factors choosing in what way the next steps of the study should be organized, but also the results of the study themselves. That is the reason why LCAs are said to be « goal dependent ». When it comes to software, we can identify several goals:

  • Studying environmental impacts of a given software (already performed): consumption of non-renewable resources, energy, pollutant emission (chemical or particles) in water, air and soils.

  • Determining the most impactful stages in a software life cycle: production/development, usage, transportation, and decline. This particular type of study can narrow down to just software categories (email software, word processing software, CMS, web pages…)

  • Identifying improvement opportunities for future products, as well as ones for the reduction of impacts on the environment. This aims is particularly targeted by editors and software creator that are mindful to develop a product with a better environmental quality.

  • Comparing environmental impacts of several products or software solutions in order to pick the one with the lower environmental impact. As a consequence, users (Information System Department, individuals, etc) or developers/integrators facing technological choices can use this tool. In the context of a compared LCA (evolution of a software or new product), only the phases that changed between the two versions of product/service will be calculated. But careful, comparing two LCAs can be tricky. In order to be trustworthy, the comparison should be executed with the same software, at the same date, with the same cut-off rules and, if possible, by the same person.

Just like any other product and service LCA, in order to be published, a software LCA must be the subject of an independent critical review. Find out the specificities and features of software products in the next article, coming (very) soon on the blog: stay tuned!

Discover the whole Methodological Guide to software LCA, downloadable for free, as well as a use case on environmental impacts of an application.


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