“So what happens now?” Getting the most out of your LCA
A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to life cycle assessments—to fine-tuning them, and to promoting their adoption. But all of that still leaves a question for a company or other organization: if carrying out an LCA was Act 1, what do you follow that up with? What’s Act 2 going to be? This article offers a number of suggestions—five, in fact—structured around three topics, one oriented towards the customer, one towards knowing the regulations, and three towards the reduction of impacts.
Years ago, at an LCA social event, our founder Mark Goedkoop and a couple of other LCA professionals used the music of the Village People to wonder aloud, “Why LCA?” These days, as we see the growing attention that life cycle thinking is getting, I can only conclude that we as an LCA community have done a great job of explaining the added value of the actionable insights that come out of an LCA. And that’s certainly something to celebrate. But there’s an important follow-up question, this time courtesy of Andrew Lloyd-Webber: “So what happens now?” That is, how can businesses and other organizations get the most out of the results of an LCA once they’ve been generated?
Carrying out a life cycle assessment of your product generates insights into its environmental performance and the factors that determine it, such as the choice of materials and sources of power. The next steps could be defined from many different viewpoints, but generally, there are three actions that will help you get the most out of your LCA:
- Leveraging the results of your LCA in marketing
- Keeping abreast of laws and regulations
- Look at ways to reduce the environmental impact of the product. For instance by improving design decisions, identifying supply-chain opportunities or defining strategic targets.
1. Leveraging the results of your LCA in marketing
Sustainable products are not only better for the environment. They are also appealing to customers. Therefore, you may be thinking of using the LCA results for marketing claims. We recommend you adhere to standards when communicating environmental claims. It allows consumers to have reliable, comparable and accurate information and therefore build trust-based relations with your brand. You can find life cycle-based standards and guidelines in this overview.
Be aware that customer expectations can differ a lot from the findings of any study you might do, as we have seen in our Sustainability Mythbusters series, particularly when it comes to packaging and transport. It will be helpful to consider these expectations in your communications.
Another important aspect has to do with comparisons between your products and alternatives. What is the most logical alternative? For instance, when comparing a plant-based diet to others, would you best express environmental benefits in comparison to a diet that includes dairy, or meat, or fish, for instance?
Finally, customers themselves may have an important influence on the environmental impact of a product, for instance through maintenance affecting lifetime expectancy or energy consumption in the use phase. With regard to the former, insights into what leads customers to discard a product, and whether this is something that can be influenced in technical terms, might lead to additional improvement opportunities. The same holds for the latter: educating consumers about how they can reduce their energy consumption can thus help them reduce their environmental impact. A success story can be found in the I prefer 30° campaign that the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE) initiated a couple of years ago to encourage consumers to wash their clothes at lower temperatures.
2. Keeping abreast of relevant laws and regulations
Laws and regulations regarding environmental management are constantly evolving. For instance, the EU Green Deal (the plan of the European Commission to make the EU’s economy more sustainable) states that “Batteries placed on the EU market should become sustainable, high-performing and safe all along their entire life cycle.” Practically, sustainability is key for EU batteries to compete with Asian ones. The EU regulation on batteries clearly points to the importance of the life-cycle aspects of sustainability. Keeping abreast of such rules and regulations is important and can provide a competitive advantage. Besides, LCA standards can help organizations to keep up with the developments in global and regional sustainability reporting.
Keeping abreast of regulations is also beneficial when it comes to trends in the market. For example, the shift towards a more circular economy leads to new business models that are based around the provision of a service rather than of a product, for instance. It can be interesting to collaborate on similar initiatives with partners. You might also encounter life cycle assessment through a trade association. Many of them champion sustainability initiatives based on LCA, to help improve sustainability, comparability, and reporting throughout their sector. Here, LCA results are also used for competitive differentiation, to strengthen marketing claims related to sustainability. Be aware that an ISO-compliant LCA is recommended when it comes to making claims to consumers about environmental impacts, particularly if you are comparing LCA results for multiple products.
3. Look at ways to reduce the environmental impact of the product
- Improving design decisions
Your LCA has provided insights into the environmental performance of your product and the drivers of this impact. One of the next things on the agenda is likely product improvement. From an eco-design perspective, it is advisable to try to make your design fit for purpose, in part by avoiding over-engineering wherever possible. The results of the sensitivity analysis (where you explored multiple what-if scenarios) can be used to make design decisions. As an accompanying benefit, fit-for-purpose design reduces materials costs and helps mitigate the risk that resources will be scarce.
- Identifying supply-chain opportunities
For product innovation, it is advisable to focus on what matters most from an environmental standpoint when selecting the best materials and/or suppliers. Considering sustainability as a criterion in the procurement process can help give criteria related to it more prominence. Finally, as a company, you may also use your leverage and relationships with suppliers and clients in collaboration opportunities that can help reduce the environmental impact of the overall life cycle.
- Defining strategic targets
The product LCA will provide you with several opportunities at a strategic level to further strengthen your sustainability performance. Subsequent strategic decisions may benefit from additional product LCAs integrated into a corporate footprint that represents your entire product portfolio, or a portfolio assessment including also materiality. Alternatively, you may also directly integrate sustainable innovation and sustainable sources as a material topic into the overall strategy, to further advance sustainability within your company. Setting clear targets can help you work towards a clear goal, and the numeric outcomes of an LCA are very useful in this regard, since they can be connected to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
To conclude, you cannot improve what you have not measured in the first place. The actionable insights that come out of an LCA can help point the way forward. And if still you feel stumped by the many options an LCA offers, just reach out. We’d be happy to discuss how you can best use the results of an LCA in your company or answer any questions that you may have!
So—to return to our musical angle—hopefully we can conclude by riffing on these lines from Scatman’s World:
“If part of your solution isn’t ending the pollution,
Then your plans will leave everyone cold.
If you want SDGs, you can reach out to PRé,
And a good LCA will help you get on your way…
Welcome to a better world!”
I am eager to increase the environmental awareness of our society, and I believe that everyone can contribute to a more sustainable world, every day. At PRé we provide companies with both the knowledge and the tools to improve their products and services. I am excited to work for an organisation that is involved in developing sustainable initiatives.