Life Cycle Analysis, the quantification of environmental impacts of a given product
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a method of quantifying the environmental impacts associated with any given product. During this process, researchers create an inventory of resources used and pollutants generated in product production, usage and depletion. From this inventory, one can estimate the product’s ultimate carbon footprint from beginning to end. This is commonly referred to as ‘cradle to grave’. Life cycle analysis is based on internationally accepted standards and is the closest to gold standard of understanding the environmental consequences of a product. When done correctly, it can provide a huge amount of insight into where the hotspots for carbon emissions are and how to reduce them.
LCA isn’t just useful for design, it can also be used to purchasing decisions along the supply chain. For example; marketing can use it as a comparison for competitors, companies can benchmark against others in their industry and against last year’s environmental performance, and lastly, policy can be made to initiate overall environmental outcomes based on the current situation. Life cycle analysis has proved to have many benefits, but the process is no small feat! Performing an LCA is extremely time consuming just for one product, and this is mainly down to the data collection required. If the data that has been collected isn’t thorough or is incomplete, it can result in inaccuracy. Time spent is also money spent and hence why an LCA isn’t an option for many companies. When they were first developed, they could take years and millions of pounds to complete, however a lot of knowledge has accumulated as the subject of sustainability becomes more urgent and so they’re a little more accessible now. Despite this, LCA’s still require outside experts, unless companies have an in house trained sustainability team. Consultants in this field have special sets of skills capable of understanding complex remits such as industrial processes or transport modelling. They also have access to existing data sources that are helpful for collecting the vast amount of information required.
So, what do the consultants actually look at?
The materials and energy that go into these five processes:
- Raw material extraction
- Distribution and transport
- Use and maintenance
- Disposal and recycling
These are then investigated for their impacts on:
- Global warming potential
- Air, water and soil pollution
- Resource depletion
The quality of an LCA relies heavily on who companies chooses as a consultant when carrying out the process. It is important to do your research and choose wisely so that your LCA is thorough enough, and greenwashing doesn’t occur.
Life cycle analysis tools for promotional purposes
While it’s fine to use LCA tools for promotional purposes, it should only be a secondary benefit. When communication is the main objective, it can be less about the process and more about the spin. Products can then be made to look more sustainable, whether that’s at fault of the inaccuracy of the LCA itself or manipulation of its data, it’s greenwashing. LCA isn’t fool proof and there are many ways to manipulate results.
Ultimately, It’s down to your business to be completely honest about environmental performance, but it’s also vital to make sure that manipulation isn’t occurring in the method, which if you’ve outsourced, is out of your control. Companies must also be honest with themselves about where their boundaries are when it comes to carbon reporting and beware third party endorsements. Seek instead proper certified verification.
This article has highlighted the limitations of LCA, and for some it’s just not viable and a simpler carbon calculation might just suffice. At eco-shaper, we decided to draw the line at our three extensive carbon calculators as we knew multiple-industry LCA would be too much for one software application due to the complexity and data gathering required. Luckily, we have built great relationships with established consultants who we can recommend for further LCA should our clients want or need this for industry specific analysis.
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At eco-shaper, we drive action on climate change and streamline carbon footprinting. For example, we can help calculate emissions across the entire ecosystem that companies work across and produce automated reporting based on outcomes. It’s like Xero, for sustainability. Contact us to be part of our research group on