Dinner is served
Normally I dislike stereotypes and get pretty bored with trite assumptions about Italians (I am Italian, for the record), so it feels a bit like scoring an own goal to talk about food and the ability – my ability – to recognize a really good meal and to know what it means to prepare one. But since this column talks about data collection and its role in LCA studies, you will agree that the link with food is pretty automatic, right?
Data collection for sustainability metrics
Data collection is a time consuming phase of life cycle assessment, and a crucial one, as there is a positive and direct relationship from the quality of one to the quality of the other.
Data are to an LCA study as ingredients are to a meal.
Before even entering the kitchen, the chef goes out looking for the best ingredients and checking their taste and freshness, the way they are made, and where they come from. And before even starting up their LCA software, LCA experts should be out looking for data for all components of a product.
Sometimes companies and newbies LCA practitioners ask if one can’t just get most data from databases, easily and painlessly. It is very tempting because, at the very beginning of an LCA, data collection looks like an uphill task.
The data collection phase contains major difficulties but also offers amazing opportunities that influence the quality of your sustainability metrics. It is up to the expert performing the analysis, together with the organization involved, to overcome the former and make the most of the latter.
Companies along the supply chain, who are requested to provide internal data about resource consumption, production details, packaging and transport, are generally not thrilled about the idea. Worse than that, they feel suspicious.
“Why are they asking this information of us? Are they planning on changing their suppliers? Are we at risk, should we fear something?”
To succeed, LCA experts need to be able to manage competences, align different levels of knowledge and promote trust. I like this aspect of LCA, because it spices up a very scientific and methodological tool with a human factor. For many companies involved, a detailed questionnaire can be perceived as overwhelming. If the inquirer’s ears are burning, it is easy to understand why. Going to a company for data collection should be like entering somebody’s kitchen: be considerate, helpful and never pretentious (always a good thing, by the way).
Data collection requires collaboration and an open attitude
The collection of data can only be as fast as the provider of the information can handle. Support needs to be provided not only for the type of data you demand but also for the reason why the process is undertaken – to gather the best possible information to calculate your sustainability metrics. The whole phase needs to be fed by mutual trust, which nurtures collaboration and an open attitude to sharing information. The ultimate goal is to accept the shared responsibility of the environmental impact and join forces to reduce it. And when, no stone left unturned, some crucial data are unavailable, like a sommelier always looks for the best match between wine and food, the LCA expert can find the data that best match through researching literature, employing databases or, for example in the case of new materials, developing new sets of data.
LCA software databases vs. your own data collection
That said, sometimes it’s OK to prefer data from databases, where all pieces are ready and one just has to assemble them with LCA software and turn them into sustainability metrics. Databases are useful if a quick screening LCA is needed. But even if this is not the case, fast food lovers might still prefer this option. It is faster and easier. However, the LCA results – rather than providing the essence of the specific product analysed – will describe many similar products. When you go to a fast food chain for a hamburger, it will taste the same whether you are in Rome, Tokyo or New York, so you won’t get much of the local flavour and tradition.
A chef is picky about the utensils used. He will choose them for their quality, like the sharpness of the knives and the resistance of pans to high temperature, but will also be driven by personal background and orientation. Similarly, the LCA expert will choose LCA software for its performance and the transparency of data, but will also be driven by his experience and the look and feel of the tool.
The cook, having gathered all his ingredients and with utensils at the ready, can finally prepare his dish. Even with the same recipe – say, gnocchi with bolognaise sauce – have you ever eaten exactly the same dish in two different restaurants? This is practically impossible. Every cook has his own secrets, personal touch, and preferences, and even though the final results may be similar and recognizable, they just won’t be exactly the same. I have tried many gnocchi, and I have no doubt my mum’s are absolutely the best (no stereotyping, please, this is a fact).
Recipe for transparency
In LCA the ISO standards are the recipe. But even following them and using the same LCA software, you’ll never get two LCAs or two sets of sustainability metrics of the same product or process which are exactly the same. The human factor, the personal experience of the practitioner, his ideas, and the country where he operates will influence the final result of the study.
If you are the cook, accept the fact that much training and experience is needed to become head chef. And if you are the client, always choose the restaurant where they are not afraid to show you the kitchen.
Environmental communicator and sustainability paths expert at 2B Srl
Beatrice Bortolozzo is a co-founder of 2B Srl (SimaPro partner in Italy). She specializes in sustainability paths, Social-LCA, Life Cycle Thinking and sustainability communication. She loves innovative thinking, sustainably creative experiences and has a passion for books, studying foreign languages, and cycling in the countryside.