Harnessing the power of life cycle assessment - what you need to know

The desire for continuous improvement in the environmental performance of businesses is intensifying.

We have noticed growing interest in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) from our member organisations, particularly among environmental managers. It is fair to say that LCA is increasingly considered to be the ‘next big thing’, so below are some of the key questions our members have asked us.

What exactly is Life Cycle Assessment?

Also known as Life Cycle Analysis, LCA is a powerful environmental management tool which identifies the significant environmental impacts of your products or services from cradle to grave (production to disposal). The impacts are identified in environmental categories such as ‘climate change’ and ‘resource depletion’.

The LCA tool is considered by the European Commission to be the best available framework for identifying and analysing the potential environmental impacts of products (you can read more about this on the European Commission website). LCA has a well-established set of methods and if it is used correctly, it can be very valuable.

Why is it important?

Businesses are increasingly considered to be responsible for the environmental impacts of production, and also for the impacts associated with raw material abstraction, product use, transport, and disposal. Both consumers and the EU regulations are moving towards "life-cycle accountability". The implementation of findings from an LCA can improve the environmental performance of your products and therefore put your business in the driving seat when it comes to meeting environmental requirements, now and in the future.

Environmental awareness is constantly growing in the consumer market. The sustainably-minded customer will be alert to reductions in the environmental impacts of your products, so getting a grip on this issue now could have long-term benefits for you in their eyes, and also in the supply chain.

How does it work?

LCA is a modelling tool. It involves data collection on the inputs and outputs of a product system from cradle to grave. The inputs and outputs are then analysed for their environmental impact. The LCA identifies significant impacts, and where they occur in the product’s lifecycle, to enable you to look for areas of environmental improvement.

How can my business benefit from LCA?

LCA can be used to highlight areas of small improvement in the environmental effects of a product or service. 

Businesses can use LCA findings to aid their decision-making processes when it comes to procurement, product design and development. This can often be tied with cost savings, for instance reducing water or energy consumption in a process.

LCAs are most powerful when looking for dramatic improvements and can be used to drive your company’s environmental development and internal engagement.

Arguably the best way you can extract monetary and reputational value from an LCA is through PR and marketing. Unilever has invested a significant amount in improving environmental performance, including undertaking LCAs, and it has developed one of the best environmental reputations in its field with consumers. Handily, Unilever publishes details online about how it uses LCAs.

What are the costs of a LCA?

Undertaking an LCA is unavoidably time-consuming and costly. A specialist is usually required to undertake the analysis, and the software packages can also be expensive if bought in-house. These factors have limited the use of LCAs as environmental management tools. If you are considering using LCA, it is important to implement it correctly to ensure the benefits you reap outweigh the costs.

What is the key to a successful LCA?

The overarching key to a successful LCA is simply this: don’t use it as something it is not.

In the past, LCA has been misrepresented to support claims about environmental performance and the public awareness of past 'greenwashing' has led to some scepticism of LCA. This highlighted the need for more consistent data collection, methodologies and guidance on communication. Because of this, new standards were developed; ISO 14040:2006 is commonly used as a guideline for LCA. Third parties and specialists in the area could also be used to provide guidance or to lead the LCA.

Finally, communication is key. The LCA information must be clear and accessible to the intended audiences; whether that is customers, staff or stakeholders. The balance between simplicity, clarity and scientific rigour is difficult.

If you have any further thoughts or queries about LCA don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of the ecosurety team and we would be happy to chat with you about it.

Robbie Staniforth

Head of policy

Having gained a wealth of experience in regulatory affairs, waste issues and secondary commodity market analysis, Robbie uses his skills internally as an operational board member and externally to influence legislation change as head of policy. He is responsible for liaising with government, regulators and industry organisations to articulate complex views and interests and to provide high-level policy expertise, industry insight and market analysis to our members.

Written by Robbie Staniforth Published 19/08/2015 Topics Sustainability

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