Everything you need to know about LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) in 2022

What is Life Cycle Analysis, also known as LCA? What is its purpose and why do it? Greenly explains everything you need to know!

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Life Cycle Analysis, also known as LCA, is essential in order to understand the impact of a product or service on the environment.

Every product or service has its own life cycle: it is designed, sold or purchased, used and then thrown away or recycled. In order to measure the carbon footprint of your company, it is essential to perform life cycle analysis (LCA) for certain products or services.

But how do you carry out this kind of analysis? What criteria should be taken into account? We explain it all in this article!

What is an LCA?

LCA: a definition

A life cycle analysis is an evaluation method used to quantify the environmental impacts of a product or service, with the aim of moving towards ecodesign. LCA is also used to make a relevant comparison between different products or services of the same type in order to select the most efficient option with the least impact.

Thus, LCA is an essential tool for highlighting polluting factors and developing solutions to improve environmental performance.

This method has been standardised on an international scale via the ISO standard (ISO 14040-44). It provides a global approach to help you understand all the potential impacts on the environment.

LCA is useful for:

  • international, national and European public bodies;
  • the scientific community;
  • manufacturers.

Is LCA right for your company? Yes, if you ever want or need to:

  • compare the environmental impact of several products with the same function;
  • provide legislators with data for introducing environmental regulations;
  • eco-design products;
  • improve the environmental performance of an existing product.

From the extraction of raw materials to the management of product end of life, as well as use, LCA helps companies to measure the environmental impact of their products via a global multi-stage and multi-criteria approach.

LCA and the life cycle approach

By applying the LCA methodology, an inventory is created of the flows associated with the manufacture and design of a product or service in order to quantify the natural resources used and the associated external factors, an approach termed as “from cradle to grave”.

The creation of the product (production and distribution)

The stages associated with the product’s creation are often energy and resource intensive. They include:

  • extraction or production of raw materials;
  • transportation of these materials;
  • production and transportation of the components;
  • assembly of the whole;
  • packaging of the finished product and distribution.

The resources used may range from fuel (for transportation), to electricity (for extraction or production), to water or potentially hazardous chemicals.

The impact is measured in different ways:

  • air, water and soil pollution;
  • destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity
  • CO2 emissions.

Life (use)

Once a product is purchased, its use also has an impact on the environment. There are fewer stages, but a significant amount of resources (fuel, energy, water) may be consumed:

Death (recovery or disposal)

The LCA of a product does not stop at its use or production; management of its end of life is essential. What happens to the product when it can no longer be used? Is the product simply disposed of or is it recycled?

This last phase is often complex and poor management of this stage can be damaging for the environment. Illegal dumping or uncontrolled incineration are two examples of this issue.

The various end-of-life stages concern:

  • collection;
  • transportation to the end-of-life site;
  • recovery (recycling);
  • disposal.

Environmental impacts may range from air, soil and water pollution to toxic emissions.

The multi-criteria approach of LCA

For information, LCA is also based on several criteria used to analyse input and output flows.

A flow is everything involved in the production of a product or service, and everything that is released in terms of negative externalities and pollution.

It is essential to collect this information on flows for LCA. Flows are quantified at each stage of the cycle and may be of different types. For example, input flows may refer to water, oil or gas resources. Output flows are more likely to involve gaseous emissions, liquid waste, etc.

Measuring these flows ultimately provides indicators of the potential environmental impacts.

LCA software packages

To ensure the most effective product assessment possible, there are a number of LCA software packages available. They can calculate the potential environmental impacts in a transparent way, based on inventory data.

However, depending on your activity, you should check that the software has access to the right databases. This software relies on these databases to break down the flows of an entire product into two distinct categories: its components and the energy required to manufacture it.

It also allows for teamworking and simplifies the process. If you do not use software, you can still fill in a table manually, provided you have access to the right data and know how to apply it correctly.

In addition to your carbon assessment, Greenly can also help you to perform an LCA. As an example, find out more about the work carried out by our experts for the ready-to-wear brand CABAÏA.

What are the stages of an LCA?

LCA consists of four major interdependent stages.

Defining the LCA objectives

The most important step is to set objectives for the analysis. Are you doing an LCA so that you can compare different products in order to launch an ecodesign approach?  

You must determine:

  • the functions of the project being studied;
  • the functional unit chosen;
  • the boundaries of the system being studied and its limits.
  • the target of the study: internal or external to the company.

The functional unit is a unit of measurement which enables the final comparisons to be made. It is used to evaluate the service provided by the product.

Three criteria must be taken into account to ensure that the functional unit is suitable:

  • duration of product life;
  • quantity and frequency of use;
  • performance.

Creating an inventory (LCI) of life cycle data

The previous stage involves defining the limits of the study and selecting the indicators. This results in a life cycle inventory (LCI) that is used to measure the material and energy input and output flows, in order to understand the environmental impact of each stage: this is the analytical flow accounting phase.

Information on two types of flow is collected during the LCI:

  • activity-related factors: kilometres travelled, tonnes transported, kWh consumed;
  • emission factors: grammes of NOx released into the air, grammes of PO4 in water.

All this data is obtained from the activity-related factors, emission factors and various databases. It can be supplemented with generic (or secondary) data from calculations when specific data is not available.

Many mistakes can be made at this stage, which is why it is important to have access to product analysis software or to call in an expert. Certain control procedures can be put in place to ensure more reliable verification.

Assessing the environmental impacts for the entire life cycle

The next step is to assess the potential impacts and harmful effects. This is based on the material and energy flows identified and the calculation and characterisation indicators chosen.

The identified flows are then broken down into two categories: midpoints and endpoints.

Midpoints

The LCA midpoints are the potential impact indicators. This category covers the most problematic impacts, evaluating the largest sources of pollution with the greatest impact on the environment. The consumption or emission of toxic substances is converted to a common unit.

These risks may include human health, ecosystems, etc.

For example, the environmental impact of soil acidification caused by a product or service is measured in SO2 (sulphur dioxide) equivalent.

Endpoints

Endpoints are the damage-oriented category of impacts. They focus on the final effect caused by the consumption or emission of certain substances. They refer to potential damage.

To take the example of soil acidification mentioned above, the endpoint of this is measured and quantified in terms of loss of biodiversity over a given surface of land. The impact is measured using the PDF (Potentially Disappeared Fraction of Species) indicator.

Interpreting the LCA results

The last stage involves interpreting the results of the whole process to see where proposals can be made for less polluting alternatives.

The entire process is iterative and requires regular validation to ensure progress is being made to achieve the objectives. Some data may not be accessible and the study scope defined in stage 1 may need to be modified.

Why conduct an LCA?

Identify environmental issues

LCA helps identify a company’s most polluting processes and provides a real environmental strategy tool in order to find solutions. In addition to improving your carbon footprint assessment at any given moment, LCA will enable you to adopt a continuous improvement process.

Develop eco-designed products

Identifying the strong points and polluting factors of your product or service will help you to find solutions and guide your choices when moving towards eco-design. LCA is an effective decision-making tool for supporting an eco-friendly policy and working towards eco-certification.  

Changing the packaging or the raw material extraction process and improving transport or recycling methods at the end of the product's life will highlight how much your company cares about protecting the environment.

Compare the environmental impact of your products

Consumers often use environmental impact to distinguish between two similar products or services. LCA highlights hypotheses and situations that are more polluting than others, so that they can be avoided to preserve resources. This broader outlook will give you a real understanding of all the impacts that your products may have in order to make more informed choices.

Communicate about your commitments

Completing an LCA for your products or services is a good way to be aware of and communicate about the real-life environmental impacts they cause. This is becoming increasingly important to your customers and your various stakeholders seeking transparency and accountability.

Performing an LCA will provide you with factual information and figures on your impact that can be used in your CSR report. A far cry from greenwashing, it should be a part of your environmental strategy, which is now essential to maintain your company’s reputation.

Example of the Greenly LCA for the textile sector

Are you in the textile sector and would like to know more about Greenly's methodology for performing an LCA for one of your products? Let us explain in a bit more detail.

There are a number of sector-specific methodological standards currently being developed. As far as the fashion industry is concerned, ADEME and AFNOR drafted a standard in 2016 that can be used as a point of reference. It defines the rules to follow and the generic values to use when modelling the LCA of a product in this sector.

If you would like an example of its application, find out more about the work carried out by Greenly for the ready-to-wear brand CABAÏA.

🌿 Raw material analysis

Collection of physical data on composition

After collecting data on product composition, a summary of the composition of raw materials (in grams per material) is established for each product.

Carbon footprint of materials

The emissions from the entire textile fibre production chain (in kgCO2e/kg) are taken from standard LCA databases. They are supplemented, if necessary, by results from scientific literature.

Conversion to kgCO2e

The weight of each material comprising the product is then multiplied by its carbon footprint to calculate the carbon footprint associated with the production of the raw materials.

🏭 Product manufacture

Fabric manufacture

The manufacture of the fabric involves, in particular, the consumption of a large amount of electricity throughout every stage of the process - spinning, weaving and knitting. The associated environmental footprint depends on a number of variables: processes used, type of material or thread count.

Finishing

Finishing covers all the processing stages required to achieve a certain quality of fabric. Once again, the environmental externalities largely depend on the specific techniques used: dyeing (with yarn or fabric), printing, chemical or mechanical finishing.  

Tailoring

Tailoring refers to the final stages of product manufacture: cutting, ironing, sewing.

As with the previous stages, the carbon footprint is especially linked to electricity consumption, and the carbon intensity of this depends on the geographical location of the factory.

🚍 Transportation

Transportation is modelled at several levels relating to the different stages of the life cycle analysis. It includes the transportation of raw materials, the routes between factories and storage warehouses and distribution of the product to the customer.

The carbon footprint is calculated for each mode of transport by multiplying the distance travelled (provided in km) by the weight of the goods transported and an emissions factor specific to the vehicle in question (in kgCO2e/t.km).

🎽 Use

Taking into account the impact generated by the consumer’s use of the product is crucial when measuring the impact of the textile sector. Numerous studies have shown that this phase can be a major contributor to the final product’s carbon footprint. Therefore, overlooking this stage results in a distorted calculation, especially when comparing different products.

Emissions are generated as a result of the electricity consumed by machines when clothes are washed and dried. Results will therefore vary according to the place of sale, and depending on the carbon intensity of the country in question. In France, in relative terms, low-carbon electricity produces a lower contribution from this phase compared to other countries.

♻️ End of life

The end of life of textile products can vary largely in the amount of emissions produced depending on the method involved (landfill, incineration, reuse, transformation into fibres, use as cleaning rags).

Since it is difficult to know a product’s fate in advance, a reference scenario established by ADEME is used.

Did you enjoy this article? Here’s everything you need to become an expert on the carbon footprint! 🚀

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