3 Tools to Critically Evaluate the Sustainability of Products

Do you know what to look for when evaluating the environmental sustainability of consumables and vendors?

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Jordan Willis, BSc

Jordan Willis, BSc, is a PhD candidate and science writer with a bachelor's degree in molecular biology and genetics. He has expertise in fungal biology and is interested in nutrient regulation, virology, bacteriology, and next-generation technologies for multi-omics approaches.

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Published:Dec 21, 2023
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The ever-increasing demand for rapid, reliable outputs from clinical laboratories often translates to greater negative environmental impacts. This stems from the sheer volume and nature of the work, which requires single-use consumables, including reagents, disposable labware, and personal protective equipment (PPE)—all packaged in plastic. 

Regulatory requirements and patient safety assurance, as well as best practices for sample handling and disposal, in clinical labs contribute to this effect by necessitating single-use products to prevent cross-contamination; while, internal quality assurance procedures require the use of disposables, such as glassware, calibration standards, and quality control materials. 

Despite this, clinical labs can help mitigate their environmental impact by examining their internal processes and critically evaluating the impact of their chosen vendors. 

Earlier this year, the Agilent Independent Global Lab Sustainability Survey found that 82 percent of the labs queried were already working toward sustainability with an increasing focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing or optimizing water and energy consumption. Furthermore, 85 percent of respondents expected support from vendors to achieve their sustainability goals. Notably, 74 percent of labs responded that they would not commercially engage with companies that don’t have a commitment to net zero, meaning it’s in a vendor’s best interest to provide easily accessible information. 

When evaluating the sustainability of consumables and vendors, start by focusing on these three key areas:

1. Environmental impact statements and corporate social responsibility reports

An environmental impact statement (EIS) provides information on the vendor’s overall environmental performance, including their commitment to sustainability practices and ecological considerations. Vendors such as Thermo Fisher Scientific may also publicly share a corporate social responsibility (CSR) report that contains comprehensive information about their eco-friendly policies and progress toward future sustainability goals. 

These documents should contain detailed analyses with quantifiable metrics such as carbon footprint, energy efficiency, or water consumption compared with other vendors or industry standards for context. Third-party verifications contained in an EIS and/or CSR can also help determine the validity of a vendor’s claims. Evaluating these statements can help your clinical lab align your eco-friendly procurement practices with vendors who share the same values. 

The specifics of an EIS or CSR are typically guided by environmental law of the originating country but may include the following:

  • Product life cycle assessments that describe the environmental impact of products throughout the entire life cycle, from raw material extraction and manufacturing to distribution, use, and disposal.
  • Raw material sourcing information regarding the sustainability and sources of raw materials, including recycled or renewable materials.
  • Manufacturing practices, including details regarding energy efficiency, waste reduction, and emissions control.
  • Packaging information, such as details about the materials used in packaging and any efforts to minimize packaging waste.
  • Transportation and distribution routes, including which transportation methods are used and details on efforts to minimize carbon emissions
  • Waste management protocols that describe how waste generated during the manufacturing process is handled and how the vendor in question encourages proper disposal practices of their products.
  • Renewable energy usage, including the type of renewable energy sources and for which operations it is used.
  • A commitment to net zero that outlines current and planned efforts regarding carbon neutrality goals (e.g., Agilent’s Sustainability Statement).

2. Eco-certifications 

Though there is currently no universal eco-certification specific to laboratory vendors, there are several widely adopted certifications and standards applicable to evaluating a vendor’s eco-friendliness. Some organizations attempt to self-regulate, but independent third-party verification systems tend to be more stringent and trustworthy, including:

My Green Lab certification

My Green Lab is a nonprofit organization with more than 2,000 members worldwide that researches and implements sustainability programs specifically geared toward addressing best practices in scientific laboratories. 

My Green Lab has developed an independent third-party labelling system called ACT® labels (accountability, consistency, and transparency) similar to a nutritional food label. ACT labels provide at-a-glance environmental impact factor (EIF) scoring information regarding a products overall impact, including environmental, manufacturing, user impact, and end-of-life information.

The ACT database currently contains more than 2,500 labels from companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Eppendorf, and Agilent.

Screenshot of the My Green Lab ACT Label system.

My Green Lab’s Converge initiative encourages collective buying of lab supplies to reduce the impact of laboratories in the pharma and biotech industry. The program provides suppliers with a database of laboratories and CROs engaged in sustainability and updates on the industry’s latest sustainability initiatives. 

According to My Green Lab’s latest report, “The Carbon Impact of Biotech and Pharma: Collective Action Accelerating Progress to the UN Race to Zero,” while 54 percent of the largest companies by revenue in pharma and medical technology have committed to the United Nation’s Race to Zero campaign, 90 percent of the public companies examined in the report still do not have climate commitments aligned with a “1.5 degrees Celsius world,” representing a significant opportunity to reduce emissions.

Green Seal certification

Green Seal is an evidence-based nonprofit that has developed health and environmental standards for products, services, and spaces for more than 30 years. Certified products can be identified by the Green Seal logo. Its standards are set based on the International Social & Environmental Accreditation & Labelling (ISEAL) Alliance Standard Setting Code, and certifications are evaluated by Green Seal’s scientists and experts with additional input from stakeholders.

ISO 14001 environmental management systems

ISO 14001 is an internationally recognized standard for environmental management systems (EMSs) that provides a framework for any business or organization. Despite providing the framework, ISO does not perform on-site standard certification, such that organizations can claim to follow the standards, however, organizations can be certified through independent third-party verification.

EcoVadis

EcoVadis is a for-profit organization that assesses and provides overall sustainability ratings for businesses (not products) in terms of environmental, social, and ethical criteria. Since its inception in 2007, EcoVadis has provided sustainability ratings for more than 100,000 businesses. EcoVadis Medals are provided to their clients in acknowledgement of achievement relative to the other companies in their database but do not directly represent an endorsement of sustainability

3. Energy efficiency

Determining a vendor’s energy efficiency can be challenging due to the overall complexity of energy usage. You may be wondering, how much energy is being used overall? Is it being used efficiently? How are vendors optimizing and minimizing energy usage? How are they showing their commitment to energy efficiency? 

Clinical labs can ensure that the products they purchase align with their goals for energy efficiency and sustainability by investigating the following areas: 

Manufacturing processes

Look for information on energy-efficient technologies, machinery, and practices. Assess whether the vendor has implemented process optimization measures to reduce energy consumption and waste.

Facility energy management

Inquire about energy-saving initiatives within the vendor's facilities aimed at saving energy such as renewable energy implementation. This could include the use of energy-efficient lighting and air conditioning systems. Vendors can display their commitment to green or eco-friendly initiatives by adhering to energy-centric certifications, such as ISO 50001 (Energy Management) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a leading green building rating system, or by participating in competitions like My Green Lab’s Freezer Challenge.

Product design and development

Determine whether the vendor develops products with energy efficiency and green chemistry in mind. This includes product life cycle analyses and the use of energy-efficient devices during production. Products that require energy, like lab equipment, can receive certifications or evaluations by standards such as Energy Star and the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT).

Logistics and transportation

Review the vendor's logistics and transportation practices, such as efficient supply chain management, which can contribute to overall energy efficiency. A vendor’s strategies for reducing transport carbon emissions should be crystal clear.

Supply chain and materials transparency

Find information about the origin, composition, and environmental impact of the materials used in a company’s products. This includes details about the energy-conserving processes and practices within their supply chain.

Working with vendors to minimize ecological footprints

Evaluating the eco-friendliness and sustainability of vendors is crucial for achieving your lab’s sustainability goals. In the burgeoning eco-consciousness landscape, customers can achieve real effects by demanding a certain level of commitment from their vendors. 

The path to success begins with establishing your own overall sustainability goals, identifying areas for improvement, and ultimately addressing those issues with vendors. 

For real-world examples of this process, our webinar Toward a Sustainable Clinical Lab contains an overview of the My Green Lab certification process, as well as two interesting case studies that describe how these ideals can be put into action.

Asking questions—such as, can this product be made more sustainable? Is this type or amount of packaging material necessary? How can we reduce the energy consumption or emissions of this device?—is fundamental to increasing sustainability and minimizing the lab’s impact on our planet.


Jordan Willis, BSc
Jordan Willis, BSc

Jordan Willis, BSc, is a PhD candidate and science writer with a bachelor's degree in molecular biology and genetics. He has expertise in fungal biology and is interested in nutrient regulation, virology, bacteriology, and next-generation technologies for multi-omics approaches.


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Supplies & ConsumablesSustainabilityGreen Labs
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Though there is currently no universal eco-certification specific to laboratory vendors, there are several widely adopted certifications and standards applicable to evaluating a vendor’s eco-friendliness.