Customers increasingly want sustainable products. Companies are therefore eager to “put on a green shirt” and market vague sustainability claims- but only some of them are actually changing their behavior.
The only way for customers to check which companies are better for the environment is by looking behind the green facade: i.e. asking for environmental data.
The most reliable environmental data on products are obtained with a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). And any commercial environmental (sustainability) claim about a product needs such reliable data. Without data – greenwashing allegations are just around the corner. And we really don’t like greenwashing at Ecochain.
In this article you learn:
1. How to ensure credible environmental data with LCA
What is a Life cycle assessment (LCA)?
A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is THE scientific method to measure all potential environmental and human health impacts of a product. The results: 15+ environmental impact outcomes (carbon footprint, water use, land use, etc).
An LCA of your product shows exactly where different types of impacts are coming from. It provides you with all data you need to back up sustainability claims, and…insights to improve your environmental performance! You can make an LCA of your products using LCA software, like Ecochain Mobius.
The principles of LCA are defined in the ISO standards 14040 & 14044. The systematic data collection and analysis prescribed in these ISOs is what makes an LCA so accurate.
To make your LCA results even more credible, follow these steps:
a. Use primary data
b. Verify your LCA
c. Follow the correct LCA norms & standards
Let’s dive into each of them.
a. Use primary data for high-quality LCAs
The quality of your LCA results truly depends on the quality of the data that goes in. The more data you collect directly from your supply chain, the better. This raw manufacturing and supply chain is called primary data.
What if I don’t have all my primary data?
Often companies don’t have access yet to all their primary data. If you don’t, there are pre-researched impact databases you can use to fill gaps in your primary data. This type of data is based on averages and is called ‘secondary data’. Secondary data helps a lot of companies start up their environmental measurements. The more primary data they gather afterward, the more precise they make their LCA results. It’s often a work in progress.
Read more about the difference between primary vs secondary data in LCA.
TIP: Always be honest about your data collection process.
To prevent greenwashing claims – be very clear & transparent about the sources of data you use in your LCA. And your progress in primary data collection. This creates clarity on how well the environmental data in your claims reflects your exact product.
b. Verify your LCA results
An LCA can be verified, which gives extra credibility to its results. Verification checks if the LCA is consistent with the ISO standards, and whether the data, methodology, and interpretations are appropriate with regard to the goals of the study. Verification is done by a company-internal or external LCA expert, who was not involved in the study.
Is verifying LCAs mandatory?
Companies are often asked for a verified LCA by important stakeholders in form of an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). EPDs are always verified. But verifying an LCA itself often isn’t mandatory (yet). At Ecochain, we always recommend a check by our Environmental Specialists or verification when you use the LCA for external communication.
c. Follow LCA norms & standards
We highly recommend making an LCA according to LCA standards and/or guidelines. If you use LCA software, this step will be a lot easier.
- Always make an LCA according to ISO14040 & 14044.
- Analyze in which country you will publish your LCA. There are industry, product, and country-specific norms & guidelines on how to do your LCA or publish an EPD. E.g. the EN15804 norm in the European construction industry.
- For specific product categories, there are also Product Category Rules (PCRs) you can follow. You can find all the existing PCRs here.
Pré-Sustainability has a great overview here of all available LCA standards and guidelines.
2. How to compare/benchmark environmental scores of products
Comparing products – e.g. with an average product, and then communicating water or CO2 savings, is a popular sustainability claim. But watch out to make such claims.
Our tips for comparing products:
- Model the product you compare to, according to the exact same methodology, assumptions, and context you applied to measure your own product.
- Model your company’s “average product” from your own portfolio and compare your ‘sustainable’ product to that.
- Use a PCR (if there is one). For some product categories (E.g. in construction, or textile) there are PCRs, also called Product Category Rules. PCRs are based on the ISO ISO 14040/44. They provide the rules, guidelines, and requirements, for making an EPD (summary report of an LCA) for a specific product category. Some even have industry averages you can compare to (like the Dutch asphalt sector). You can compare verified EPDs of products if they follow the same PCRs. → OVERVIEW OF ALL EXISTING PCRs.
Failing these requirements often leads to greenwashing allegations!
Will comparing environmental scores be easier in the future?
Hopefully yes – due to the introduction of EU’s PEF method. The PEF will create LCA methods specific to many different product categories, called PEFCRs (PEF’s Product Category Rules).
PEFCRs make products within the same category comparable through a common LCA method and delivers an ‘average product’. You would benchmark your product to this average product – without having to model the comparable product yourself.
The PEF is currently being developed by the EU. It’s still open if the PEF will be made into product labels or even become mandatory. Moreover, verification requirements under the PEF are still unknown.
*PLEASE NOTE: these PEFCRs are not the same as the already existing PCRs based on ISO 14040/44. PEFCRs basically can be seen as the PEF version of PCRs. Yes – terms & concepts within corporate sustainability remain confusing sometimes…
3. How to communicate your sustainability claim
Now you know what (and what not) to base your claims on. But how do you communicate your data effectively? In short, communicating environmental claims needs to be:
- Accessible: Your annual sustainability report/product LCA report is the basis for any claims you make. Follow good reporting norms (e.g. GRI) and practices to make it accessible to the reader.
- Understandable: Always put yourself into the shoes of your stakeholders. Don’t use jargon. Explain all concepts and try to write in simple language. This is KEY – whether it’s on a product label or in a sustainability report.
- Relevant: Don’t put all your environmental data into a report or claim- you can reference published supplementary material. Product LCA results exist in 15 impact categories. Not all of them are equally relevant for you or your stakeholders. Analyze the biggest impact hotspots and impact types of your product and choose the most important ones. E.g. land use, water use, water pollution, and carbon footprint for apparel products.
- Transparent: ALWAYS have quantitative and published data to support your claims. Report the sources of your data and the methods you used. And make sure to not miss any possible negative signs ;). Companies often don’t get from A to Z in one night. Just explain where you’re now – and where you want to go.