Life cycle assessment and cradle to cradle: friends or foes?
There are many different sustainability tools, ranging from simple to complex and covering the various aspects of sustainability: environmental, social and economic sustainability. The popularity of these tools waxes and wanes.
A well-known sustainability tool is life cycle assessment (LCA). It has been around for more than 20 years, and during this time it has experienced waves of higher and lower popularity. In the same time, other tools and approaches have come and gone in similar waves. In recent years, cradle to cradle (C2C) is one of the most discussed sustainability approaches, with more and more companies stating their efforts to implement C2C. While both LCA and C2C aim for sustainability, it is interesting to investigate the differences and similarities. Could these two approaches work together? If so, how?
Life cycle assessment
LCA focuses on the environmental side of sustainability. It follows a quantitative approach, where the whole life cycle of a product is investigated and all used substances and materials are defined. This is a bottom-up approach, where the collected data is used to calculate the potential environmental impact of the whole product life cycle.
LCA has a strong scientific basis, building on many years of research regarding the effect substances have on the environment. It has many possible uses, ranging from reporting, benchmarking and monitoring to identifying improvement opportunities and doing ecodesign. When it comes to ecodesign, LCA is mostly concerned with identifying hotspots or main contributors to the environmental impact. This information can then be used to attempt to reduce the impact.
Cradle to cradle
C2C includes aspects from both the environmental and social sides of sustainability. It takes a qualitative approach, using a top-down perspective. It starts with a vision of what a sustainable world looks like and what role a product can fulfil in this world. This means that the whole product system can be re-imagined to fit the vision. For example, C2C does not ask ’How can we design a better car?’, but rather ‘How can we provide personal transportation?’. Only then does the product itself come into focus.
C2C uses a certification system that allows for storytelling and easy communication. Whether a product can be certified as a cradle to cradle product is investigated using a list of mostly qualitative criteria. These include material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness. The product is scored on each of these criteria, and the lowest score becomes the product’s overall mark. When it comes to ecodesign, C2C is all about closing loops and creating beautiful and elegant products that are ‘more good, not less bad’.
Friends or foes?
LCA and C2C are two very different sustainability tools. Where LCA is about quantitative calculations and measurements, C2C is about qualitative visions and storytelling. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, LCA does not include social aspects or positive effects. On the other hand, C2C does not measure whether a certified product actually has a lower overall environmental impact, so a C2C-certified product may end up having a shifted or even increased burden.
In 2011, a position paper about the usability of LCA for C2C purposes concluded that LCA is not suitable to assess and communicate the beneficial qualities of a C2C product. However, that does not mean that the two cannot complement each other. Combining them has the potential of providing both a beautiful vision that can be clearly communicated while also providing quantitative insight into the environmental impact and avoiding the shifting of burdens. In that way, life cycle assessment and cradle to cradle can be strong allies in working towards a sustainable world.
When I established PRé in 1990 I ran a design consultancy, then I decided to do ecodesign. But, how do I tell the good from the bad? And how can I measure ‘eco’? So I started on a journey together with a few pioneers in the emerging LCA scene and gave up designing. I realized then that these same questions need to be answered by any company embarking on the route to more sustainable products and services, preferably in a scientific, honest, and businesslike way. Providing good transparent tools, data, and methodologies to empower organizations to make the transition to sustainability, that is my drive.
My background in industrial design made it clear to me that the current system of consumption and disposal cannot be maintained in the long run. I quickly became interested in quantifying sustainability, so that well-supported decisions can be made in our move towards a more sustainable world. LCA provides the ability to focus on the facts.