LCA and its role in sustainability
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August 10, 2023 - From sourcing materials to disposal, a product life cycle assessment (LCA) offers insights into the environmental impacts, both big and small, that carries throughout the entire lifespan of every product. As regulatory bodies worldwide are tightening environmental regulations, LCA implementation can provide a comprehensive understanding of a product's environmental impacts, enabling organizations to identify areas for improvement and make more sustainable choices.
What is an LCA?
LCA is a methodology to quantify the environmental impacts of products through their entire or partial life cycle, from raw material acquisition all the way to the disposal or recycling of the product.
As an example, let’s consider a bicycle. We are interested to evaluate the carbon footprint of the bicycle over its entire life cycle. A simplified product supply chain may look like this:
The first step is to track the bicycle supply chain all the way upstream (to raw material extraction) and downstream (to bicycle disposal or recycling) as presented in the flowchart above. By doing so, we can track all the energy and material requirements, as well as emissions, not only through the bicycle use or production, but also throughout its whole supply chain. We consequently translate all the material and energy requirements and emissions into an environmental impact score (let’s say carbon footprint for this example), in terms of CO2-equivalent.
By shifting the perspective on environmental performance evaluation from product direct use (bicycle, for this example) to supply chain using LCA, we can:
- Assign the true and life cycle carbon footprint quantification to a product or service, considering all the upstream and downstream factors,
- Identify life cycle stages with the highest carbon footprint and,
- Evaluate and then undertake practical alternatives to effectively reduce the products carbon footprint by targeting the highest contributing life cycle stages to the overall product carbon footprint.
For example, let’s say the quantification of the bicycle’s carbon footprint using LCA shows that the raw materials have the majority of the bicycle’s overall carbon footprint. This highlights that future efforts to reduce the bicycle life cycle carbon footprint should focus on raw materials sourcing (e.g., use of alternative materials with lower carbon footprint, such as recycled materials).
LCA’s role in sustainability
The role of life cycle assessment in sustainability can be viewed through environmental sustainability, and social and economic sustainability.
Evaluating environmental impacts throughout the whole supply chain provides a more comprehensive understanding of the total environmental impact of a product or service, considering indirect impacts (e.g., raw material extraction, manufacturing processes, transportation, and disposal). This approach helps identify and address hidden or overlooked environmental risks, supports more informed decision-making, and enables the implementation of effective sustainability strategies. In addition, it prevents burden shifting, where the environmental impact at one stage of the life cycle is reduced, while the impact at another stage is increased (often happens when focusing only on direct impacts and emissions).
LCA, however, is not limited to just a carbon footprint. It considers multiple environmental factors such as resource depletion (e.g., fossil fuels use), water use (e.g., groundwater net intake), land use (square meters of arable land), air and water pollution (emissions of polluting gasses such as NOx and SOx), and waste generation (emission of hazardous waste to land and water). By considering a wide range of indicators, LCA enables a more accurate and holistic assessment of the environmental impacts associated with a product or service and supporting sustainable choices beyond just carbon emissions.
Social and economic sustainability
LCA is not only a strong tool to elevate environmental sustainability it is also helpful for social and economic sustainability by promoting life cycle thinking. Life cycle thinking aims to identify potential environmental, economic, and social hotspots (as known as life cycle costing and social life cycle assessment), uncover hidden impacts, and make informed decisions that prioritize sustainability throughout the entire life cycle. It encourages considering the broader system and interconnectedness of activities (as known as systems thinking), rather than focusing solely on isolated stages or direct impacts. (Read Tackling decarbonization: ESG planning strategies and Future of work: The role of ESG regulations.)
An LCA is a powerful tool for sustainability evaluation. It provides a systematic and comprehensive approach to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a product or service throughout its entire life cycle. LCA helps identify potential areas for improvement, enabling informed decision-making and the implementation of more sustainable practices.
However, while LCA is essential for evaluating sustainability, it is not sufficient on its own. It is the adoption of life cycle thinking that makes the big push towards sustainability. Life cycle thinking goes beyond LCA by considering the interconnectedness of activities, promoting a holistic perspective, and considering not only environmental factors but also social and economic dimensions. By embracing life cycle thinking, organizations can truly integrate sustainability principles into their decision-making processes and drive significant positive change towards a more sustainable future.
Follow BSI’s sustainability experts for more on implementing carbon reduction initiatives and other future-ready approaches to organizational sustainability and watch for Ramin’s upcoming series on LCAs in supporting global sustainability goals.
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