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Weslynne Ashton Develops Method to Determine a Business’s Environmental Sustainability and Economic Viability

September 22, 2021

Journal of Industrial Ecology
A New Way to Inform Decision-Making
Weslynne Ashton

Weslynne Ashton

When the owners of a bakery in Chicago were looking for a source of energy to fire their ovens that would be environmentally sustainable and economically viable, two of the three options they were considering would use waste materials from nearby businesses as fuel. Associate Professor Weslynne Ashton and two research colleagues conducted a life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) comparing the sustainability outcomes of the three potential fuel sources to provide the bakery owners with information about the options.

The research team took a novel approach to the project, developing an LCSA methodology that quantifies the contribution of a broader range of resources than has been used before. The Journal of Industrial Ecology has published the team’s paper, “Capital-based Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment: Evaluation of Potential Industrial Symbiosis Synergies,” which lays out their methods and results.

In my field of industrial ecology, we focus on measuring the stock and flow of materials needed for a product or process to evaluate its sustainability performance. We often focus on materials, energy, money, and, to a lesser extent, the social benefits, such as job creation.
—Weslynne Ashton, Associate Professor at the Institute of Design and Illinois Tech’s Stuart School of Business

For the bakery’s LCSA, Ashton and co-researchers Shauhrat S. Chopra and Karpagam Subramanian, both from the City University of Hong Kong, developed a new methodology that focuses on maintaining, conserving, and regenerating capital—that is, resources that create value. The expanded scope of their assessment encompasses eight capitals: natural, social, financial, cultural, manufactured, political, human, and digital.

The new methodology builds on groundbreaking theoretical work on the eight capitals by Ashton and ID colleagues Charles L. Owen Professor in Design Carlos Teixeira and Andre Nogueira (PhD 2019) published in 2019.

The current research takes the next step. “Trying to quantify the contribution of these different of types of capital,” Ashton says, “is a completely new perspective.” Ashton and her co-researchers explore ways of measuring the contributions of different types of capital as well as building quantitative methods to assess sustainability to inform decision-making by businesses, governmental agencies, and other entities.

The most important thing coming out of this project is demonstrating the methodology. It’s a methodology in development and we hope that others will also take it up and test it out.
—Weslynne Ashton