Project Management, Sustainability and Whole Lifecycle Thinking
ITT Project Management - Sustainability and Whole Lifecycle Thinking
Although the sustainability movement has been advocated predominately in response to the irresponsible expansion of inefficient infrastructure by industrialized nations, with the United States and Japan now making significant efforts to embrace "green" growth practices, a growing movement has emerged that promoting sustainability throughout developing nations presents the most productive path. Even as the most modernized nations continue to update their consumption patterns to better suit the technological age, seeking efficiency and effectiveness that is sustainable for the foreseeable future, rising powers like China, India, and Brazil are expanding their spheres of influence at the expense of the natural environment. To address the threats posed by developing nations repeating the mistakes of prior generations, mistakes which run the gamut from China's reckless damming of its nation's natural waterways to India's inability to address its skyrocketing population through medical means, the United Nations (UN) has adopted a policy position known as Whole Life Cycle Thinking. The fundamental premise of Whole Life Cycle Thinking revolves around the concept that consuming a particular good or engaging in certain activities exerts a multitude of effects on the environment throughout the duration of its global supply chain (Mozur, 2012). Through the collaborative efforts of the United Nations Environment Progamme (UNEP) and the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), the UN has spearheaded a global movement known as the Life Cycle Initiative to provide incentives for companies serving developing nations to fully integrate sustainable practices throughout their production and distribution networks, while also encouraging consumers to consider the full impact of their consumption choices on local and global environmental health.
Life Cycle Initiative as an Exercise in Project Management
The project management demands of an enterprise as ambitious and open-ended as the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative require an enormous organizational effort to control the scope of an ostensibly global campaign, while also assuring that key objectives are pursued in the most pragmatic possible fashion. For an entity notorious for its history of bureaucratic waste and institutional incompetency, the UN must actively apply the theoretical foundations of modern project management to the Life Cycle Initiative in order to allocate its prodigious resources in the most efficient and effective manner. It is reasonable to expect UNEP to include a rigorous life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) (Mozur, 2012), in addition to the more traditional methods of project risk management, to the complex web of charitable contributions, published research, and other activities directly and indirectly associated with the work of its Life Cycle Initiative. By subjecting their own processes to the standards of Whole Life Cycle Thinking, defined by the Life Cycle Initiative as a genuine desire to adhere to the most sustainable practices currently feasible, UNEP can assure maximum transparency, demonstrate a true commitment to its championed cause, and maintain strict control over the project's continued management.
Scope Definition and Scope Control
The concept of scope definition is an integral component of project management theory, with noted expert in the field Kathy Schwalbe observing in her Information Technology Project Management that successfully defining the scope of a complex project such as the Life Cycle Initiative is integral to achieving predetermined goals, improving product delivery, and streamlining essential processes (2011). By successfully defining the appropriate scope for an expansive project, managers are far better equipped to anticipate risks and develop viable contingencies, and their ability to achieve a working level of scope control is greatly enhanced. According to literature published by UNEP and the Life Cycle Initiative, one of the fundamental elements of the life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA), which they assert is now the most effective means of assessing a product's potential to adversely affect the environment, is based on defining the goal and scope of any study designed to assess a product's functional units and system boundaries (Remmen, Jensen & Frydendal, 2007). The theoretical basis of scope definition is also closely related to the goals of Whole Life Cycle Thinking, because when corporations are encouraged, or when necessary compelled, to take the entire product life cycle of their manufactured goods into account, the willingness of executives to streamline their operations will be almost entirely dependent on economic incentive. The directives published by UNEP in its 2007 report Life Cycle Management: A Business Guide to Sustainability make it clear that scope control is crucial, both to the spread of Whole Life Cycle Thinking practices throughout the realm of international industry, and to its own organizational structure. By stating unequivocally that UNEP promotes environmentally sound practices, both on a global level and its own practices, and demonstrating this commitment by reminding readers that the paper on which the report is printed is 100% recycled, uses vegetable-based inks, and is distributed in the most ecologically responsible manner possible, the program provides a tangible reminder that scope control can be achieved when producers make a concerted effort.
Recognizing the Impact of a Product's Life Cycle
One of the essential ideas to emerge from the study of Whole Life Cycle Thinking is the notion that all manufactured goods which are produced and distributed create dynamic supply chains capable of creating serious social and environmental effects. A single product, be it a laptop computer, diamond necklace, or a pad of paper, involves hundreds of individual people, dozens of production and assembly plants, and a variety of processes which pose potential threats to surrounding environments and ecosystems. The metals needed for wiring and circuitry must be mined from the earth, plastic covering must be refined from its petroleum base, and assembly lines require continual operation, with constant emissions of harmful greenhouse gases resulting from the consumption of fossil fuels. The dilemma of achieving sustainability without sacrificing growth lies at the heart of UNEP's efforts to foster a global marketplace which is conducive to creating environmentally sustainable products despite the marginal reduction in profit-margin which may occur as a result (Finkbeiner, 2009).
Major Businesses Committing to Life Cycle Management
One well-known company that has publically embraced the use of Whole Life Cycle Thinking to guide its global manufacturing and distribution network is Staples, Inc. In over two decades of operation, Staples has established a positive public image defined by delivering superior customer service and practicing exemplary corporate citizenship in accordance with the policy of Staples Soul. According to the 2005 Staples Corporate Responsibility Report, the philosophy of Staples Soul reflects the company's renewed commitment to corporate responsibility, with an emphasis on adopting production practices to better sustain the environment, and by linking these environmentally-conscious values with an overall global business strategy, with streamlined operations contributing to financial success (Sargent, 2005). Examples of Staples Soul initiatives in action include the company's longtime commitment to offering store credit to customers who recycle their depleted printer ink cartridges, charity-based community outreach programs, and a sterling record of environmental responsibility. The management of Staples is also cognizant of the impact of Whole Life Cycle Thinking as it pertains to its product lines, which consist mainly of disposable plastic devices and poisonous printer ink. As such, the company makes several references to the improvement of its sourcing practices in ecologically valuable regions, construction methods that ensure products remain recyclable throughout the span of their life cycle, and advertising campaigns designed to encourage consumers to recycle or return most items in its inventory. By virtue of Staples' public statements confirming a companywide pledge to adopt sustainable practices and Whole Life Cycle Thinking, and the verifiable data confirming that this pledge is being actively pursued while increased profit margins are attained, it is clear that the efforts of UNEP's Life Cycle Initiative merit continuance and expansion. With this in mind, further examination of the project management requirements is necessary to determine if the Life Cycle Initiative has achieved its project goals with economic efficiency, while adhering to a predefined and strictly controlled project scope.
Examples of the Life Cycle Initiative's Successful Use of Project Management
Clearly Defined and Strictly Controlled Project Scope
One testament to the conscious strides made by UNEP to achieve scope control over its Life Cycle Initiative project is the 10-Year Framework of Programmes for Sustainable Development, a binding document created during the Rio+20 United Nations Conference in Sustainable Development. By unambiguously defining a decade-long project parameter, UNEP provides key stakeholders with a clearly established timeframe around which plans can be devised and implemented. Although the 10-year framework does not constitute an actual end to the work of encouraging global industries to integrate Whole Life Cycle Thinking into their operations, as it is highly likely that UNEP will renew the Life Cycle Initiative when this term expires, the establishment of significant dates and deadlines is a key component of scope definition and scope control (Carroll, 2009). The specific structure of 10-Year Framework of Programmes for Sustainable Development allows UN officials to conduct annual reviews of progress reports generated by the secretariat on programmes, in this case UNEP itself, as well as the submission…
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