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The Role of Lifecycle Assessments in Sustainability

Jun 2016

In our last post, we talked about the importance of a materiality assessment, a key step in understanding your brand’s pathway to sustainability. This post talks about the second major research you need to do.

You need to undertake a lifecycle assessment.

The aim of a lifecycle assessment (LCA) is to calculate the environmental footprint of a product, a company, or even an industry across its supply chain. This results in a process to map the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life (e.g., vinyl pipes) from the raw materials to recycling and/or disposal.

What’s your impact on the planet and people?

Since the goal of sustainability is to produce more with less, it’s important to understand both the small and the cascading impacts of every step in your production and distribution system. The impacts that a typical LCA might measure include: 

  • air emissions (e.g. global warming potential, carbon footprint, acidification, photochemical smog)
  • land and water emissions/contamination
  • water use
  • waste (to water, to landfill)
  • energy use
  • land management
  • biodiversity
  • natural resources use

As much as possible, you will want to tie your LCA to your hotspot analysis so that your assessment is focused on the impact categories of importance to your stakeholders. For example, if your materiality assessment found that energy is not a hotspot, then it might not make sense to include energy in your LCA for now unless there is a specific business driver for highlighting certain related sustainability gains or efforts.

Use data broadly.

In undertaking your lifecycle assessment, it’s important not just to rely on your own internal data alone. For example, you might want to use public data (e.g., state and federal environmental protection agency data, labor and land management statistics). You’ll also want to bring in at least three sources of primary data from key participants in your value chain (including yourself). This will allow you to get a more complete picture of your product, brand, and/or industry footprint. 

It’s not just about the environment.

While the lifecycle assessment focuses on the environmental impacts, sustainability also encompasses the social and economic impacts of your actions. Some social impacts, such as shifting employment patterns and child labor, are typically handled via third-party verification and certification programs. Economic impacts, such as job creation, unemployment, and community economic growth, can be found via government and private sector tracking and reporting. It’s equally important, therefore, to conduct a lifecycle study assessing the total cost of ownership (TCO). By combining the LCA information with the TCO, you can obtain a more balanced ecological and economic overview of the current impacts to use to make future decisions.

Use comparative (rather than single) measurements.

The main purpose of calculating LCAs  is to use them in a decision-making process of continuous improvement. If progress can be shown for certain impact categories, communicating those results can help to alleviate stakeholder concerns and reduce the importance of the relevant hotspots. Lack of progress for impact categories that are hotspots, on the flip side, should trigger focused product research and innovation. 

In both cases, however, it is hard to drive a conclusion from one number only (e.g., “what does it mean to have 50 mg of CO2 per unit of product?”). If your LCA assessment is done comparatively (with other alternatives or with the same product development over time), decisions can be made regarding the future sustainability development of the product. It is generally recommended that companies and industries perform the comparison over time, rather than alternative products, for the sake of “doing more with less.”

Review, translate, and disseminate your results.

Once your lifecycle assessment is complete, it should be peer-reviewed. Ideally, it would be good to identify a panel of experts that know something about both your product and your methodology. The goal here is to get a “seal of approval,” if possible a certification by a third-party body.

A typical LCA report is filled with data and not terribly actionable to the average reader. To make sure stakeholders understand your impacts, it’s critical that your accomplishments be translated into a format that resonates with your reader. 

For example, you could say you reengineered your manufacturing processes to reduce land use by 20 percent. Or you could say, “We saved over 300 acres of land, the equivalent of 227 football fields.” Which do you think is more useful?

Publishing your results in a way that your stakeholders can understand and talk about becomes more important over time, as you redo your lifecycle assessment ever few years (hopefully using the same data sources and methodology so you are comparing apples to apples). Finally, remember that, like your hotspot assessment (which is perception-driven and qualitative), your LCA is measuring quantitatively what is an iterative process toward a more sustainable future. 

Check out the "Vinyl for a Sustainable Future" series.