8 March 2019

How Life Cycle Assessments Can Improve Your Business Performance Across Different Disciplines

- Linda Thorpe

Coca Cola has a long history of packaging design with the environment in mind. As a matter of fact, they laid the first milestone towards Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) in 1969, commissioning the first multi-criteria study to assess the relative impacts of glass versus plastic bottles. It is now exactly 50 years later, and consumption as well as the use of scarce resources has increased tremendously. This calls – more than ever – for a sustainable assessment of products and their impact on our planet. So, what is LCA, how does it work and why should you care?

What Exactly is LCA?

The framework analyzes the environmental impact of a product, process or service across its entire life cycle by assessing their impact from “cradle” (raw material extraction), via manufacture, distribution, retail and usage up until “grave” (disposal). The approach analyzes a product’s life cycle from a sustainable perspective in a quantitative, factual manner. The goal is to compare the environmental performance of your products. Through the standardization by the International Standardization Organisation, the framework gained reliability and transparency, yet its accuracy always depends on the precision of the given data.

It is important to keep in mind: LCA deals with the comparison of product systems, not products. For example Stonyfield, an organic yoghurt producer located in the US, considered packaging their product in highly recyclable cups in a heavy box that used toxic inks and solvent adhesives to seal it. If they only had investigated the primary packaging, they would have concluded that due to its recyclability, it is the preferable packaging option. But looking at the overall picture of the product delivery system (PDS), the impact of this packaging would have created a higher total environmental impact than if the cups were made from non-recyclable but stronger material, allowing for a lighter weight box. With the help of LCA, Stonyfield was able to examine the entire PDS and choose the packaging option with the lowest environmental impact of getting a cup of yoghurt to the store shelves. The resources used for different product systems extend deeper than most consumers would assume.

The Four Phases of Every LCA

ISO defined the four stages for a transparent, coherent LCA:

  1. Goal and Scope Definition

  2. Inventory Analysis

  3. Impact Assessment

  4. Interpretation

In a first step, the LCA needs an explicit definition of the goal and scope. The phase is essential to set the context of the study and ensure the consistency of the LCA performance. Besides laying out the most important decisions – for example, why the LCA is being executed, how it is defined precisely –  it includes technical details to guide the frame of the study.

Secondly, the inventory analysis (LCI) looks at the environmental inputs and outputs of a product / service. Some also call this step the “fuel of the LCA”, as its purpose is to quantify the environmental inputs and outputs within a product’s life cycle to build inventory flow models. Environmental inputs could be for example water and raw materials, whereas outputs can be measured through resulting environmental emissions such as air pollution.

The third step looks at the impact assessment of the product’s or service’s life cycle (LCIA). Based on the environmental impacts identified through the LCI flows (phase two), the third phase evaluates the significance of each flow’s impact for the individual company / goal of the study. This partially also depends on how you want to address your target audience and its pre-existing knowledge on the topic.

In the final interpretation phase of the LCA, the representativeness and confidence in final results of evaluated information has to be checked in order to create a reliable set of conclusions and recommendations for the study. The interpretation of LCA results has to be done cautiously – just because three is lower than four, does not mean that it is automatically the better alternative. It is essential to always keep the goal and the overall picture of the study in mind.

LCA Disciplines and Applied Cases

Generally speaking, LCA can help many key departments in organisations to make big steps towards sustainability. In the following we give you an overview of disciplines where LCA is applicable and how it evolved.

Product profile

Conducting an LCA on product level can help to highlight the eco-hotspots in a specific product life cycle, meaning those areas where the highest environmental impact occurs. For instance, after conducting an LCA for light bulbs, Siemens found that the majority of environmental impact came from the use phase in customers homes. The company therefore improved the lamp’s efficiency and was able to reduce the environmental impact enormously.

Supply Chain Management

As discussed earlier in this article, LCAs can also foster looking beyond individual product efforts and profiles and consider the entire PDS. This supports the supply chain management within the company but also exceeds across the company’s gates, including upstream and downstream entities. To improve upstream performance, companies may have to reconsider their supplier choice and investigate whether there are more environmental friendly substitutes than the currently purchased ones. In order to influence the downstream performance, this mostly concerns the consumer’s behavior. Here, for instance, companies can make use of LCAs to establish products that solve customer sustainability issues.

Marketing and Commercial

According to an international study conducted by Unilever (2017), around 33% of consumers increasingly choose to buy goods from brands they believe are contributing to the social or environmental good. Furthermore, 21% of the 20,000 surveyed people said they actively choose brands that clearly pointed out their sustainability credentials on their packaging and in their marketing campaign. Sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have for businesses, it has become routine for customers to ask for sustainable and environmental performance of products. Companies have to be transparent about the footprint of their products and at the same time offer some point of proof to avoid accusations of greenwashing or such. For instance the Australian vintner Taylors Wines uses LCA to validate its 100% carbon neutrality claims. This also closely relates to the strategic purpose of comparing the performance benchmarks of your products to your competitor’s. Sustainability can be used beneficially as a differentiating unique selling point in product advertising, emphasizing the sustainable attributes of your product.

Product development tool

LCAs can also be used for innovative purposes. The methodology is able to point out where the eco-hotspots within the product life cycle lie. These identified implications can be used to investigate and develop new products based on the sustainability insights gathered earlier during the process. For example it can help to assess the environmental impact of design choices and different product modifications – this can be for example new material choices. In the unfortunate case, that LCA results are disappointing, the results can support the reduction of future costs by terminating an unsustainable project at an early stage. A positive show case is Levi Strauss who made use of LCAs as an innovative product development tool while creating its “Dockers WellThread” clothing-line. Basing careful design choices on their findings, they were able to improve manufacturing, use and end-of-life performance of its clothing.

LCAs – From a Critical Perspective

Jennifer O’Connor, president at Athena Sustainable Materials Institute, states that LCA is a “powerful tool when used right”. It helps us to understand the environmental impacts of a products manufacturing process, while it is used and finally, disposed. Yet, like any tool, its power can be used in less helpful ways. If you assess the life cycle of a poor product and want to use LCA to improve its impact, it might still not achieve a result anywhere close to producing a good or service that is sustainable for our planet. It is necessary, to always keep the broader context and goals in mind, then LCA can support you to enable the creation of a truly green economy.

Now you want to find out which disciplines of your organisation or company an LCA could enhance to increase sustainability? Get in touch with us to learn more about what our LCA tool can do for you! Or take 2 minutes of your time to watch our short introduction video, explaining how Ecochain works and what we believe in.

Did you know that Coca Cola was one of the pioneers to conduct its first multi-criteria study in 1969, attempting to design more sustainable packaging options for their product? Today, about 85 percent of their global beverage volume are made from 100% recyclable materials. Don't be a laggard. Become a sustainable front runner.

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Other useful links:

In 2006, the LCA standards of 1997 were revised and replaced by two more concise publications, outlining the internationally recognized LCA principles and framework (ISO 14040:2006) and the requirements and guidelines (ISO 14044:2006).

If you want to know more about the exact changes, Matthias Finkbeiner, who led the expert team that developed and implemented the changes, published an article in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment here.