StepChange Primer. Sidhant Pai, Chief Science Officer, StepChange Inc.
StepChange Primers provide brief overviews of important subjects in corporate sustainability.
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As businesses start responding to the increasing consumer, investor and regulatory demands that their products and services become ‘sustainable’, there is justifiable confusion as to how to go about this process. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are an important piece of this puzzle. When used appropriately, they can be powerful tools in any organisation’s sustainability arsenal, providing a detailed framework for exploring, estimating and evaluating a variety of environmental (and sometimes social) impacts that are caused by a product/service (or material/process) throughout its lifespan.
What is a Life Cycle Assessment?
At its core, an LCA breaks down a given product into its component processes and materials. This is done by defining a series of ‘life-cycle stages’ that form a linearised representation of the distinct stages in a product’s life span. The scope and specificity of these life cycle stages depend on the underlying system boundaries that define what portion of the life cycle to consider when conducting the analysis. For instance, a ‘cradle-to-gate’ analysis will often define the system boundary as spanning from the resource extraction stage to the point of sale, whereas a ‘cradle-to-grave’ analysis will extend the boundary to include end-of-life treatments. Once the representative processes and materials are defined, the impact of each life cycle stage is estimated by defining an impact assessment methodology and shortlisting key impact metrics using life cycle inventories to calculate the relative impacts.
How are LCAs used by Companies?
Businesses are increasingly relying on LCAs to:
Measure, analyse and communicate the environmental (and social) impacts of their product portfolios (for ESG measurement, management and reporting).
Identify targeted opportunities to optimise operational efficiencies and enact specific interventions across different life cycle stages
Identify targeted opportunities to guide research, product development and iteration.
Use science-based methods to validate the organic/natural/sustainable nature of their product line.
Differentiate their products from alternative products that have similar functional characteristics but different embodied impacts.
Inform product certification, labelling standards and environmental product declarations.
What are the Challenges of using LCAs?
While LCAs can be powerful tools for corporate decision-making, they suffer from a few important shortcomings:
The process of defining the system boundaries and life cycle stages is highly subjective, open to interpretation and often extremely sensitive to unconstrained assumptions.
The life cycle impact assessment process can leverage very different inventories and characterisation methods. It is also very sensitive to unconstrained assumptions.
The impact assessment inventories, assumptions and methods are often industry and region-specific, making each analysis extremely time-consuming and difficult to scale.
Because of the complexity of the analysis, it is very challenging to validate the relative accuracy of an impact assessment at a given life cycle stage.
The few established LCA standards (e.g., ISO 14040, ISO 14044) are still very broad and flexible, making it difficult to interpret and normalise LCA results.
While numerous challenges exist, LCAs are highly under-appreciated tools to conduct science-based sustainability assessments and inform targeted corporate action. A number of companies will turn to LCA-based methods over the next decade to inform their sustainability strategies, making it an exciting and impactful space to innovate within.
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