Life Cycle Assessment brings credibility to “green” products… (Part 2)

Part 2 – Understanding the full life cycle cost of our actions

In Part 1 ( Life Cycle Assessment – the “language” of sustainability professionals ) of this series on Life Cycle Assessment we learned how all Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) are not “created equally”.  Unless you can speak the language of an LCA you might get duped into thinking that a Hummer is better for the planet than a Prius!

Sometimes even a properly researched and peer-reviewed LCA can still be written to make assertions that seem, well, self-serving.  Take for instance the study carried out by the American crop protection and fertilizer industry stating that the gross emissions (C02 equivalents) by these industries is far outweighed by the increased crop yields generated by their use.  The contention – “stop using these chemicals and you would need to farm more land to generate more food, thus creating additional greenhouse gases”.   Ah, but “..therein lies the rub”,  is this the full environmental impact of these products or just their greenhouse gas impact?  Changing the question, changes the result.  So does changing the model, the database used and the scope of the project.

Hence, our need to learn to speak this language.  Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) will become the standard for internalizing our long ignored externalities in the transformation to a more sustainable world. 

The Sustainability Consortium & Member Companies are using Life Cycle Assessment to "green up" Products. Click the Picture to see a video from the Sustainability Consortium.

But as Sustainability Professionals we need to embrace the skills that will allow us to critically examine the results.  It may be helpful to know that:

  •  Using concrete instead of wood for construction can generate 80 percent more greenhouse gases and require about 40 percent more energy or,
  •   Air drying your jeans could reduce their climate impact by 60% and,
  •  Paper towels will always lose out to hand dryers because the pulp and paper process contributes to almost 90% of their environmental impact.

 So, 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.  Tune in next week when we look at who is using Life Cycle Assessment and what drives them to do it.

In the meantime, if you are increasingly responsible for the design, development, marketing, sales or communication of “greener” products, processes or services, plan on attending the upcoming SLC Workshop:  Life Cycle Assessment for Products, Processes and Services on April 13 & 14, 2011 at Humber College in Toronto.   Register now & save    $ 250.  This program is offered by the Interuniversity Centre on the Life Cycle of Products, Processes & Services in Quebec.  This Institute is part of the United Nations’ Life Cycle Initiative and a Member of the Sustainability Consortium.

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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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