Life Cycle Assessment – the “language” of sustainability professionals (part 1 of 3)

I believe that Life Cycle Assessment will become the “language” of sustainability professionals everywhere.  If you can’t speak it, and want to excel in this field, you need to get on-board fast.  I’ll explore why I believe this to be true over the next 3 weeks.  Here is Part 1.

Part 1 – On the road to “radical” transparency:

Do you know your monitor’s footprint?  As Sustainability Professionals, we have been asking footprint or life cycle questions with increasing frequency.  In a sustainable, closed-loop world, we need to understand the environmental and social impacts of the products and services businesses provide.  Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the process by which a footprint is measured is a fairly new science.  For many, it is entirely a new vernacular.  Yet if we are involved in strategic planning, marketing or manufacturing as a Sustainability Professional, there has never been a more critical topic requiring our in-depth understanding.

This text is used in the Sustainability Learning Centre's Life Cycle Assessment Course on April 13 & 14, 2011.

The Sustainability Learning Centre recently held its first Life Cycle Assessment course this Fall in Toronto.  The well known Centre for the Life Cycle of Product, Processes and Services (CIRAIG) in Montreal provided the subject matter expertise for the program.   It examined the goal and scope of LCA studies, and the difference between attributional and consequential LCAs.  The course also looked at system boundaries, damage categories, weighting principals and sources of error.  

Sound complicated and overly scientific?  Maybe you are even thinking that only academics and specialized consultants should be even attempting to make sense of LCA.  Think again.  If you are in the sustainability field, you need to have a basic knowledge of Life Cycle Assessment.   It is the language of sustainability and in the age of “green label declarations” the language of survival for sustainability.

 In 2010, more than 95% of consumer products claiming to be green were guilty of a least one sin of “greenwashing” according to TerraChoice’s 2010 Greenwashing report.  This ever rising level of green label claims even caught the eye of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission this Fall as it released new Green Labeling Guidelines to clarify environmental claims on products.  

In essence some type of “radical” transparency on green products is the only credible way of transforming our market economy to one that internalizes the externalities of environmental degradation caused by the manufacture and use of products.  At the centre of this system, one that makes “goodness pay”, is Life Cycle Assessment. 

 Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence, describes Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as the “deconstruction of stuff… that allows us to measure its impact on nature from the beginning of production through their final disposal”.   It is increasingly clear, that LCA is a concept and language essential for anyone in the sustainability field because “the devil is in the details”.  Unless you can critically examine LCA studies, even at a cursory level, your effectiveness in the age of “radical transparency” will be limited.  

Here is a case in point.  A few years ago a report titled the ‘Dust to Dust’ report claimed that the total environmental footprint of a Hummer SUV was less than that of a Toyota Prius. These findings were reported widely and uncritically by newspapers, blogs, and industry accounts, including glowing mentions by syndicated conservative columnist George Will and at least one policy group.

If you want to read the entire 458 page report you can download the PDF here, but the synopsis of the report basically puts forth that once you take into the account the full costs associated with research, development, mining, operation and maintenance and finally the recycling of the hybrid car the total amount of energy consumed is greater than that of a Hummer over each vehicle’s usable lifetime.

If you spoke the language of Life Cycle Assessment you would have been able to see that the report was not a Life Cycle Assessment at all.   Closer inspection identified that the report’s conclusions rely on faulty methods of analysis, assumptions, selective use and presentation of data, and a complete lack of peer review.  Even the most cursory look revealed serious biases and flaws.  The average Hummer H1 is assumed to travel 379,000 miles and last for 35 years, while the average Prius is assumed to last only 109,000 miles over less than 12 years.  These selective and unsupported assumptions distort the final results.  A quick re-analysis with peer-reviewed data leads to completely opposite conclusions: the life-cycle energy requirements of hybrids and smaller cars are far lower than Hummers and other large SUVs.

 So if you are wondering how you can avoid being “taken in” by such shoddy work, tune in next week to learn more about the language of Life Cycle Assessment.  And, in the meantime, check out our next Life Cycle Assessment Course on April 13 & 14, 2011 at Humber College in Toronto:  Life Cycle Assessment for Products, Processes and Services.   Our November course included participants from Research in Motion, Zerofootprint, Enviro-Stewards, Watters Environmental Group and York University. 

Here is what some of the November participants said:

“This workshop was an excellent introduction to Life Cycle Analysis concept and practice.”

“If you are interested in LCA, I would definitely recommend it.”

“I am taking tangible LCA methodologies home with me.”

“The LCA course is essential to individuals who seek to understand different perceptions of how the environmental impact of a product is analyzed and currently perceived.”

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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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