Life Cycle Assessment: a revolutionary game changer and best kept secret

The movement toward Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a standard for internalizing our long ignored externalities is exactly this type of transformation.

Author and Playwright Howard Zinn once wrote, “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.”

The movement toward Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a standard for internalizing our long ignored externalities is exactly this type of transformation.

 Consider the following zigzags made transparent by LCA:

  •  Using concrete instead of wood for construction can generate 80 percent more greenhouse gases and require about 40 percent more energy
  •   Air drying your jeans could reduce their climate impact by 60%
  •  Bottled water is bad, but coffee, wine and juice have a higher climate and water impact

 In today’s new business reality, understanding the full impact of a product, process or service is essential.  In the past our inability to see the full life cycle cost of our actions resulted in unanticipated consequences: increased cancer rates, species and habitat destruction, high levels of waste (financial and material), desertification, collapse of fisheries,  impending water scarcity and of course – climate change. 

Today industry sectors, businesses and government are using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to manage risk, create well considered policy and regulations, protect brand equity, redesign processes, products and services and enter the burgeoning trillion dollar “green” market.  And yet to many, LCA is still a “best kept” secret.

Industry Sectors Take Cover under LCA

Resource sectors are using LCA as a way to manage risk, sometimes proactively and sometimes while under direct attack.  Agriculture, forestry, mining, seafood and fish farming are using Life Cycle assessment and management strategies to make and re-make their environmental friendly face.  Recently the Redwood Association completed studies showing that wood outperforms plastics, steel and concrete. The LCA study identified that using concrete instead of wood can generate 80 percent more greenhouse gases and require about 40 percent more energy.

DEFRA in the UK develops agri-food LCA models for carbon and water footprint in this sector to better understand contributing factors and develop approaches for climate change adaptation

 The mining sector is employing LCA to minimize the full life cycle impacts of mining operations.  LCA has been done on fish products to determine the relative energy turnover and emissions.  While the life cycle of sustainably produced seafood is being examined for ecolabeling, certification and consumer education purposes.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK is developing agri-food LCA models for carbon and water footprint in this sector to better understand contributing factors and develop approaches for climate change adaptation.  The Pew Centre on Global Climate Change asserts that there will be a growing interest in the significant lifecycle carbon emissions of agriculture and food.  Agriculture’s GHG footprint in the U.S. is 7% of the country’s total.  In addition water intensity of some irrigated crops is under increasing scrutiny.  Pew notes that in a globalized food market, accounting for life cycle emissions will be crucial in reducing GHG emissions from agriculture and livestock.

Companies Green their Top and Bottom Line with LCA

LCA creates "radical transparency" making eco-labelling possibile for a burgeoning $ 2.74 Trillion green market.

Leading consumer products companies and their supply chains are transforming their processes, products and services with LCA.  Over 18% of companies using LCA are employing it to support business strategy and R&D.  Companies like 3M, Alcan, HP, Procter & Gamble and Unilever are using LCA to:

  •  Reduce risk through pollution prevention, decreasing materials of concern and addressing sustainability issues identified by non-governmental organizations and customers. 
  •  Save money through eco-efficiencies including dematerialization and energy and embedded water reduction.
  •  Support product and process innovation to maximize societal value and minimize environmental impacts.
  • Grow and identify “green products” in a burgeoning $ 2.74 trillion green market by 2020.  The strategy to market and label “sustainable” products requires “radical transparency” according to Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence.  The undeniable trend toward labeling “greener” products is evidenced by the 342 eco-labels currently available in 42 countries world-wide.

Driven by customers, the movement toward Life Cycle Assessment is supply chain wide.  A case in point is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium.  This group of companies representing the Wal-Mart supply chain is focused on Life Cycle Assessment and the creation of transparent methodologies, tools and strategies to drive product innovation and supply networks for sustainability.  Consortium members are a “who’s who” of Fortunate 500 consumer goods producers.  You can bet that these companies will drive LCA throughout the entire consumer goods supply chain far beyond Wal-Mart’s reach. 

LCA the New Government Standard for Policy & Regulatory Development 

Meanwhile governments are increasingly using LCA to ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are based on whole life cycle decision-making.   For instance governments can:

  •  Avoid technical trade barriers by employing LCA.  European rules such as REACH (Registration,

    Governments are increasingly using LCA to ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are based on whole life cycle decision-making.

    Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals),  WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and the European Packaging Waste Directive are all LCA based, anyone wanting to trade in these regions will be well advised to follow suit.

  •  Cut “red tape” with LCA since it provides an analytic framework for “best available technology” rather than prescribing easily dated and increasingly wasteful technical solutions.
  •  Minimize their environmental footprint with LCA.  For instance the Quebec government uses LCA in many of its operations, programs and purchasing policies.
  •  Optimize externality markets (such as carbon credits), which are only the beginning of the kinds of externality markets that can be developed using LCA as the calculation engine.  LCA typically calculates the full suite of pollution effects.  It can also calculate biodiversity loss and water consumption over the life cycle.  Advocates suggest that it is in the public interest that all environmental impacts be minimized through market mechanisms, and LCA is the only technique that is specifically designed as a comprehensive science-based method for measuring environmental performance of systems.

LCA’s application to externality markets include the “green water credit” program supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the carbon standard for goods and services in the food and agriculture sector established by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK.

The bottom-line:  In the private and public sector Life Cycle Assessment is a revolutionary game changer.  Businesses, government and industry sector associations need to understand the implications of this approach.  If this is news to you, don’t worry, LCA has been a well kept secret.  But now is time to get on board – the revolution is here.

The Sustainability Learning Centre is offering an exclusive Life Cycle Assessment Workshop in the Toronto Area, October 7 & 8, 2010. 

The program is being delivered in partnership with the Centre for Life Cycle Product, Processes and Services (CIRAIG) in Quebec.  This world-wide renowed Life Cycle Assessment organization ia an official partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)/Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Life Cycle Initiative. 

Only 20 spaces are available.  To register and reserve your space now visit: Life Cycle Assessment Workshop.  Register before September 16, 2010 and save $ 250/registration.

 

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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2 Responses to Life Cycle Assessment: a revolutionary game changer and best kept secret

  1. Kavita T. Dorai says:

    This was an excellent article on Life Cycle Analysis. Clearly it’s an idea whose time has come.

    Please do send me more information/articles on this topic. I’m a registered environmental health professional, a small business owner and consultant advocating local business owners to make net energy savings and reduce operational wastes in the food industry.

    Though my website is currently under construction, my Linked in information is:
    http://www.linkedin.com/pub/kavita-dorai-ms-rehs/23/bb5/880
    I would be glad to provide a link to LCA resources on my website to promote awareness and redirect traffic. – Kavita

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