How to conduct a useful Life Cycle Assessment

A Life Cycle Assessment is the best way to measure the environmental impact of your company’s product or service.

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March 11, 2022

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As more and more businesses start to quantify and reduce their environmental impact, we’re hearing a lot of talk about Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). But what exactly are they? How can you efficiently conduct a Life Cycle Assessment? Why should you realize it? How can it be useful for your company? Are there any alternatives? Greenly tells you all you need to know on Life Cycle Assessment.

What is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

A Life Cycle Assessment, also known as an LCA or a Life Cycle Impact Assessment, is a complete measurement of a particular product or service’s environmental impact, across its entire life cycle (this is sometimes referred to as cradle-to-grave, but we’ll get into that later). Although you can apply LCAs to services, it is typically used in the realm of products and manufacturing, so we’ll refer to LCAs in this context throughout this article.

LCAs give you a full picture of the environmental impact of your product: all the way from the raw materials extracted to produce it, the carbon emissions and energy used to manufacture it, the materials used in packaging it, the emissions generated by transporting it to its final point of sale, the impact it makes over its lifetime, and the waste it creates when it is no longer usable.

What is a life cycle?

That’s a good question, because it’s odd to hear the term life applied to a non-living thing. The life cycle of a product or a service refers to all the interlinked stages of its system — all the way from extracting the natural resources required to make it, to the toxins and materials it puts into the ground when it is finally disposed of.

What do LCAs measure?

There are several stages in a product’s life, and these can change depending on the product. Typically, the stages look something like:

  • Mining the raw materials;
  • Manufacturing;
  • Packaging;
  • Distribution;
  • Usage;
  • Final disposal or recycling (which can then become raw materials for new products).

One example of an LCA

Let’s use the example of a laptop. If you were a computer manufacturer and you wanted to conduct an LCA on a new line of laptops, it would tell you:

  • The raw materials that are required to make it (such as gold, copper, and aluminum), and the quantity required;
  • The energy required, and emissions and waste produced, in manufacturing it;
  • The materials required to package it;
  • The emissions generated by the vehicles taking it to its final point of sale;
  • The electricity it will use over its lifetime;
  • How it will be disposed of or reused at the end of its life.

What are the different types of Life Cycle Assessments?

There are three different types of LCAs you can perform, depending on the level of detail you need to see. For example, if you’re conducting an LCA simply to report on product impact internally within your company, you probably won’t require the level of detail you would if you were using an LCA for external purposes, like marketing or complying with regulations.

The three types of LCAs are those followings.

Conceptual LCAs (Life Cycle Thinking)

This is the simplest LCA available. It can help you to make basic assessments of your environmental impact, but is only based on minimal data. You might show the results of a conceptual LCA as simple statements and graphics highlighting which processes or materials make the biggest environmental impact.

Simplified LCAs

This kind of LCA uses generic data and standard modules to calculate environmental impact of products and services.

Detailed LCAs

These LCAs are full-scale assessments that involve customized investigations and data collection, analyzing and categorizing impact, and interpreting the results.

But there are also different approaches LCAs depending on what you're measuring. For example, a social LCA measures the social impact (positive and negative) of a product, whereas an environmental LCA focuses on a product's environmental impact.

Life Cycle Assessment standards

Unlike some other environmental terms and methodologies (like the term carbon neutral), LCAs are fully standardized, the world over. These standards come from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – in particular, ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, which set out the four main stages of an LCA.

Because the process for conducting LCAs is standardized globally, they are a great option for publishing transparent data on behalf of your company, and trusting the data published by other companies.

How to conduct a Life Cycle Assessment

We won’t sugarcoat it (sugar farming has some pretty detrimental effects on the environment, anyway) — conducting an LCA is not easy. Especially if it’s your first time, this process will take time, resources, and expertise that you may not have in-house.

The 4 stages of a Life Cycle Assessment

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) outlines the four standard stages of a Life Cycle Assessment in the ISO 14040 and 14044: goals and scope, inventory analysis, impact assessment, and interpretation.

Each stage of your LCA builds on the other, allowing you to tweak and refine the process as you go.

Stage 1: Goals and scope

LCAs, like all models, are simplified versions of reality. In Stage 1, it’s important to define your goal (why you’re conducting the assessment), which will help you determine your scope (how simple or detailed you’d like your LCA to be).

This is the project initiation stage, where you decide on the scope of the study, what data to collect, and how you’ll go about it. In a nutshell, this phase determines what you want to analyze and how deep you want your search to go. This is also where you’ll set the primary purpose of your assessment based on your concerns about the product or goals for the future.

Some examples of goals include:

  • Providing insights into reducing environmental impact;
  • Communicating ecological impact to consumers;
  • Informing policies and strategic decisions.

There are far too many impact categories to make covering them all in a single assessment possible. Ask yourself these questions to set boundaries for your LCA:

  • How much of the product are you assessing?
  • Which impact do you want to minimize?
  • What won’t you assess?

The goals and scope you set will also determine how long your assessment takes, and what is required at each stage.

Stage 2: Inventory analysis

Your inventory analysis takes into account all the environmental inputs and outputs associated with your product, known as your product's material flows. Your inputs might include raw materials and energy, whereas your outputs might include pollutants and waste streams. Basically, Stage 2 shows you what you take from the environment, and what you put back into it.

To conduct your inventory analysis, you’ll first need to figure out what data you need (outlined in Stage 1). Then, you’ll describe your product’s energy flows and collect the inputs and processes you want to measure. This includes raw materials, energy used, supplier data — anything that flows in and out of the system you’re measuring. Collecting this data usually isn’t a straightforward process, which means Stage 2 can easily become a time-consuming process.

For activity within the scope of your analysis, you'll need to collect extensive data. Think of this as your data collection phase. You may need to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research to get the information you need to move forward. This might even involve interviews with experts, literature reviews, and surveys. In some cases, you still might not get enough, and if this happens, you may need to rely on industry estimates.

Once you have your input and output data, you’ll need to analyze and evaluate it carefully to identify potential risks and opportunities, and structure it clearly to get a complete picture. Flow models are often recommended for the final stage of this phase, which will then help you move onto Stage 3.

Stage 3: Impact assessment

In Stage 1, you outlined the impact categories you wanted to measure — maybe you decided to look at carbon emissions, or water usage, or something else. But Stage 2 is about evaluating the impacts you’ve identified.

In your impact assessment, you’ll translate data to impacts. To do this, you’ll need to look at life cycle databases and scientific papers, to define the impact of your life cycle inventory (Stage 2).

You’ll look at each of the impacts your product makes, and then categorize them into pre-defined groups (like global warming, human health, etc.), sum up your impacts as category totals, and then figure out which of these impacts and impact groups matters most to your company.

Stage 4: Interpretation

When you interpret the results of your LCA, you’re checking that the conclusions you drew in Stage 3 are actually correct, according to the ISO 14044 standard. This standard provides a list of ‘checks’ that help you test whether the conclusions you’ve drawn are in fact supported by your data and your methodologies. Stage 4 is ordered in five steps:

  • A completeness check;
  • A consistency check;
  • A sensitivity check;
  • Identification of significant issues;
  • Conclusions, limitations, and recommendations.

Once you complete Stage 4, it’s up to you to use your findings as the basis for making informed changes to your product, or passing on recommendations to decision-makers higher up in the business. You can even use your LCA recommendations as starting points for policy-making and governance.

Why conduct a Life Cycle Assessment?

Assessing the environmental impact of your products through an LCA is one of the most trusted ways to measure and disclose the environmental impact of your company and your products. LCAs are unique because they are so rigorous and grounded in data. There are systems for measuring the impact of your products, but none are as quantitative or comprehensive as LCAs.

Publishing the results of your LCAs keeps consumers informed, improves your brand image, and gives you a clear path forward for reducing the environmental impact of your products, by revealing key problem areas for improvement.

And since an LCA can be used in multiple ways and many times over, it can be a worthwhile investment for companies serious about reducing their environmental impact.

Although many people might be interested in the results of your LCA, it’s usually the following departments within a company that request and use the results of LCAs the most:

  • Management and executives;
  • Marketing and sales;
  • Supply chain/procurement;
  • Product and R&D.

It gives you a clear picture of your environmental impact

LCAs help you visualize and quantify the total impact of a product. You’ll learn about the materials that make your product, the carbon emissions they produce as byproducts, and the damage your product waste can cause.

It shows you the most effective place to start reducing your carbon footprint

These days, many businesses are interested in reducing their carbon footprint, mitigating their environmental impact, and becoming eco-friendly.

It helps you calculate and manage your supply chain impact

The GHG Protocol’s Scope 3 includes supply chain emissions, and in fact, this is where most companies and products contribute the bulk of their environmental impact. With an accurate picture of which parts of your supply chain are responsible for what, you’ll have a clear idea of where to start looking for alternatives.

It helps compare apples to apples

The standardized format of an LCA makes it easier to clearly compare the environmental impact of individual products and product categories within your business, and even compare your own products to those of other businesses.

It can improve your brand image

Life Cycle Assessments inspire trust and connection between brands and consumers. In today’s market, consumers are more informed than ever before — and also more conscientious. 

75% of millennial consumers consider a product or brand’s sustainability before making a purchase, which means that figuring out — and communicating — the environmental impact of your products is crucial to standing out in the market, and attracting a new generation of consumers.

Conducting LCAs demonstrates transparency and can reveal a positive ecological image, helping you appeal to new consumers on the hunt for planet-positive products, and it also fosters loyalty among your existing customer base.

It motivates employees

More and more millennials want to work for value-driven companies that care about their environmental impact, and conducting an LCA can be a great place to start on the journey to building a business that is better for the planet.

It opens doors to new opportunities

If you supply products to other businesses, disclosing the results of your LCA gives your buyers knowledge of the sustainability of your products and methods, which can make you a favorable choice for businesses looking to reduce the harmful impact of their supply chains.

It helps you comply with regulations

Sometimes, your business will need to conduct an LCA to comply with government regulations. And though it’s not currently a requirement for every company around the world, there could soon come a day when LCAs are required by law — so there’s no better time than now to prepare.

It informs new product developments

Especially in 2022, new products should be designed with environmental impact in mind. LCAs can help R&D teams compare the environmental impact of particular materials, suppliers and processes, informing the design of new product ranges.

It streamlines operations

Because they effectively shine a spotlight on every part of your production chain, LCAs can have the added benefit of revealing inefficiencies and areas for optimization within your current processes.

It improves strategic planning and policymaking

LCAs can give helpful data, insights and recommendations to key decision-makers within your company, allowing them to make informed strategies and policies that help your company make real changes to its environmental footprint.

What makes a ‘useful’ Life Cycle Assessment?

An LCA is only truly useful if it helps you achieve the goals you set out to achieve in Stage 1, and is conducted to an appropriate scope to assist with your goals. And even though not all LCAs are designed with the intention of informing a reduction in environmental impact, we believe LCAs are only truly useful when they can clearly tell you where your company is creating a negative environmental impact, and identify where you can start improving it.

Goals

Why do you want to conduct an LCA in the first place? What’s driving your decision to seek more insight into the environmental impact of your products? Once you can answer these questions, you can decide what kind of LCA will be of use to your company.

Detail

If your LCA is so high-level that it doesn’t give you clear insights for where to focus next, or it’s so detailed that you get lost in the small picture and don’t know where to go from there, it’s not useful to you. Make sure you carefully define your goals and scope in Stage 1, so that the results of your assessment can help inform your next move.

Action

Measurement is a necessary first step on the journey to running a more environmentally friendly business, but by itself, it’s nowhere near enough. A Life Cycle Assessment only becomes truly useful when it highlights areas where your product causes unnecessary harm — and even then, the LCA is only beneficial if your company is committed to rectifying your environmental impact.

Life Cycle Assessment alternatives

There are other ways to think about your product's life cycle, but these can be useful approaches that give you an understanding of the impact of your product, but none are as rigorous or as quantitative as a full-blown life cycle assessment. These include:

  • Cradle to gate (product impact from production but only until it leaves the factory "gates"). Running a cradle-to-gate assessment makes your LCA much simpler, and allows you to make progress faster;
  • Gate to gate (a mini-LCA that looks at a single process in your production chain). Again, gate to gate assessments are a simpler way to get insight into a small area of your product's life cycle, and get a move on;
  • Cradle to cradle (a concept used within the circular economy, where waste is recycled to become the new raw material for another product or industry);
  • Well to wheel (an LCA specifically for the life cycle of fuels, from raw extraction to emissions from usage);
  • Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) are standardized (ISO 14025) and independently verified certifications that measure the environmental impact of your product, and are typically used to compare the impact of products in a similar category;
  • Environmental Impact Assessment (evaluates the potential environmental impact of proposed construction projects);
  • Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment (EIO-LCA — uses averages to estimate the materials and energy used by a particular sector of the economy, and the emissions it creates).

Life Cycle Assessment book recommendations

If you want to get really nerdy, here’s a few books we recommend that can help you conduct your Life Cycle Analysis:

  • Life Cycle Impact Assessment;
  • Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA);
  • Goal and Scope Definition in Life Cycle Assessment;
  • Life Cycle Assessment: Principles, Practice and Prospects, by Karli Verghese and Ralph Horne;
  • Life Cycle Assessment: Theory and Practice, edited by Michael Z. Hauschild, Ralph K. Rosenbaum, and Stig Irving Olsen;
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): A Guide to Best Practice, by Walter Klöpffer;
  • Environmental Life Cycle Assessment, by Myriam Saade-Sbeih, Alexandre Jolliet, Shanna Shaked, Pierre Crettaz, Olivier Jolliet;
  • Life Cycle Assessment Handbook, edited by Mary Ann Curran.

Talk to Greenly

If this is your first time conducting an LCA, we recommend partnering up with experts.  If you want to get a clear picture of the life cycle environmental impacts of your products, talk to the team at Greenly. We help businesses just like yours conduct useful Life Cycle Assessments to measure the carbon impact of their products.

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