Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a scientific method to measure the environmental footprint of a product. The result: 15+ impact outcomes. But before you can measure, you need information on your product. Think of data on your usages & emissions, utilities, transport, materials, etc.
That’s why the first step in measuring LCA’s is Data Collection.
Data collection can quickly turn into a “help-how-should-I-do-this-without-a-headache-moment”. We don’t like headaches. After reading this article, you’ll know:
- Who needs to collect this data;
- What data you actually need;
- Where to collect the right data.
Let’s go through the phases of data collection in LCA.
Phase 1. Deciding what to measure in your LCA
1. Determine the main person/department(s) responsible for the measurement project.
Usually this is done by the sustainability manager. If your company doesn’t have a sustainability manager yet, it can covered by a data specialist, product manager, accountant, or the finance department.
2. Determine what you want to measure.
Which individual product(s)/product portfolio do you want to measure the environmental footprint for? Deciding what and how much you’ll measure is crucial for determining the data you need. Will you focus on one product? Or do you need the footprints of a whole portfolio?
3. Determine the measurement scope of your product’s lifecycle.
Generally speaking, the product lifecycle consists of five phases:
- Raw Material Extraction
- Manufacturing & Processing
- Transportation (factory to customers – but transport can occur in between al phases)
- Usage & Retail
- Waste Disposal
Based on the phases you’re interested in or have data available on, you can choose to leave in- or take out phases. The data you need differs per scope. There are three main lifecycle scopes:
Cradle-to-gate: assesses a product until it leaves the factory gates before it is transported to the consumer (phase 1&2).
Gradle-to-grave: includes all the 5 life phases in your measurements. ‘Cradle’ is the inception of the product with the sourcing of the raw materials. ‘Grave’ is the disposal of the product. It shows a full footprint from start to end.
Cradle-to-cradle: is a variation of cradle-to-grave, but exchanges the waste stage with a recycling/upcycling process that makes it reusable for another product. Essentially “closing the loop”.
Choosing your model defines your results and how to communicate them. It’s CRUCIAL to transparently communicate your chosen lifecycle model to your stakeholders. As your results cannot say anything about phase 4 or 5 – if you didn’t include them.
4. Create a project plan with budget, scope, and timeframe.
Find the scope and timeframe our own Environmental Specialists use here.
Phase 2. The data you need for your LCA
1. Map out the data you need for your LCA + who holds it.
For both product portfolio footprints & single product footprints (scope = cradle-to-gate) you need data on:
a. Company’s energy usage, emissions, and waste. (type + quantity)
- Retrieve from: Finance & sustainability department
b. Purchased and used raw materials, transport distances in km. (type + quantity)
- Retrieve from: Purchasing department & Google Maps
c. Per process: product distribution, energy usage, emissions. (type + quantity)
- Retrieve from: Process engineer, Product owner
d. Production composition – BOM (bill of materials), unit(s) & weight per product, production quantities.
- Retrieve from: Product owner & purchasing department
2. Including consumer use and end-of-life in your LCA?
The use phase and end-of-life can both play a large role in your product’s footprint. Create scenarios based on your product experience (e.g. product usage requirements). Or existing industry standards/reports on the product’s sector (e.g. standards waste procedures).
3. Aim to work with as much PRIMARY data (from suppliers) possible.
Primary data is raw data that’s collected from main sources. It covers your raw process- and site-specific data, estimates, statistics, and bookkeeping. Creating a list of all the necessary inputs and outputs of your product’s lifecycle. These are then connected to corresponding impacts when you perform an LCA.
This data also includes raw data from your suppliers and distributors. You can request inventory data from your suppliers, but the best option is to ask for LCA’s of their products (or EPD’s).
Primary data is crucial for LCA:
- It makes your LCA more credible through accurate raw data that’s specific to your footprint study – instead of relying on averages.
- It provides you with more reliable, authentic and objective footprint insights. This allows for focused and effective sustainable efforts and gives companies more ownership over their LCA’s.
Phase 3. How to structure your LCA data collection
1. Inventory who holds the data you need.
In phase 2, we discussed which departments hold the data you need. Make sure to inform these departments in time and make them responsible for their data delivery.
2. Involve your internal data specialist.
Environmental data is often a new data flow within a company. Involve your data specialist in setting up this new sustainability flow correctly. The necessary data should go to the right output format for your measurements. This ensures:
- Security: the required data is correctly secured in your company’s database.
- Reproducibility: you can always trace back & use your data again. This is crucial for future measurements.