Factor in Durability For a True Measure of Sustainability

Factor In Durability for a True Measure Of Sustainability

by ELIZA CLARK, Director of Sustainability, Andersen Windows | Nov 22, 2015

As evidenced by all the new tools on display at Greenbuild this month, it is truly an exciting time to be working in building product development. After decades of research, testing, more research and exhaustive product development, the products coming to market today represent the best in generations. Based on this fact, some believe that sustainability can be found only in a new product.

Yet, while next-generation products may offer advancements in energy efficiency or eco-friendly materials, extending the performance and durability of older products may, in some cases, actually be the greener choice.

Durability refers to how long a manufacturer expects its product to consistently perform as it was designed and built to do. While there are plenty of industry experts who can give you an average lifespan for just about anything, what they haven’t figured out yet is how that durability and lifespan factors into measuring the product’s sustainability. Take windows, for example.

At Andersen, we estimate our windows’ life cycles in terms of decades. That’s not just because we build them well, but also because we place equal importance on window care and maintenance. Much like the routine maintenance a driver may perform on a car, windows require some simple but important care that allows high-quality windows to function like new for decades.

The concept of maintenance is sometimes lost in consumers’ disposable mindsets. Over the course of a couple generations, our buying behaviors have changed. Now, without giving it a second thought, we quickly discard one functional item in favor of a replacement that promises to perform better. (Who among us doesn’t have a drawer full of “old” cell phones?)  For better or worse, our consumption-oriented society places little value on the long-term use of a product. Considering the kind of impact this repetitive consumption has on our natural resources, though, that mindset has to change.


Think about the full range of environmental impacts associated with just one product over its life span. In our business, replacing a window doesn’t just mean creating waste by removing and discarding the old one. There are other impacts related to the new product, including the materials, energy and emissions associated with manufacturing, transporting and installing the replacement.  

  • NET-ZERO MINDSETS: Andersen recently partnered with Habitat for Humanity in River Falls WI to create an 18-home, "Eco Village" neighborhood that combines affordable housing with net zero energy consumption.


To date, the step in the analysis that we’ve been missing is the weighing of a new product’s sustainable benefits against the resource savings associated with extending the length of the current product. In other words, in the case of windows, replacement may still make sense if the old window’s energy efficiency or functional performance is poor. But that is not always the case. Our next challenge, therefore, is how to include product durability as part of a measure of overall sustainability. Doing so will prevent unnecessary waste and preserve valuable resources for current and future generations.   

Of course, we don’t want to discourage sustainable product development and purchases. But it is long past time to incorporate durability when measuring sustainability. For companies, it will offer one more proof point of the quality that their products offer. For consumers, it brings validation to the wisdom of their purchasing decision. 



Based in Minneapolis, the author is Director of Sustainability at Andersen Corporation and a board member with the nonprofit Environmental Initiative.

Follow her on Twitter @ElizaCClark

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