LCA has some storytelling to do

Life cycle thinking is and always has been a powerful tool to gain insight into the impact your products have on the environment. It’s perhaps the most comprehensive and robust methodology we have available. However, its use seems to stay limited.

Is life cycle assessment being overtaken by new approaches?

Many companies use life cycle assessment in their R&D process or within their sustainability department. However, new methodologies and techniques –the circular economy or the sharing economy, to name a few – are gaining ground with new users. The strength of LCA, namely that it’s science-driven and robust, is also its downside. Development of LCA methodology is mostly done by scientists, who keep focusing on improving the methodology, and don’t pay as much attention to experiment and experience how it can be used in a broader perspective.

LCA is used, but not often integrated

To help make that switch to a more pragmatic and integrated approach, it’s important to first understand what’s really happening with LCA in day-to-day business. PRé surveyed 274 sustainability champions, CSR managers and LCA experts from 28 countries around the globe.

We learned that the use of LCA is still growing and that 57% of the top management is aware of LCA. Companies have 5 to 10 years’ experience with conducting LCA, and expect the use and application of LCA to grow. However, we also found that LCA departments are struggling to gain influence in companies. The expected growth might just be wishful thinking. It definitely seems like a paradox: LCA practitioners increasingly use LCA, but find it difficult to show its benefits to others. That raises the question “who are we doing it for?”

The only way LCA practitioners can increase their influence and the use of LCA in their companies is to understand how it benefits others. The new methodologies mentioned above, such as the sharing economy, are very good at showing their benefits and relevance. They might lack the robustness of LCA, but their uptake is much bigger as they give people a thrilling ambition to pursue. LCA has to compete and collaborate, to learn from others, and to prove that it’s still relevant.

Taking the pragmatic view

I believe that a change in perspective is needed in LCA practitioners. Let’s stop trying to convince people how important LCA is and let’s start listening to what other people need to achieve their goals. That will also help us understand the language they use and the ambitions they have. Departments and companies all have a unique language and are made up of different people. If you want to be relevant, it’s essential to speak the same language as the company or value chain you’re trying to serve. It’s as simple as that. Only in collaboration can you make a difference.

LCA practitioners are driven to make a difference, but they can only succeed if measuring environmental impact becomes a daily practice of the organisation they work in. They need to show how that’s complementary to what others do, because supporting others is also daily practice: companies and people work with many different tools and approaches, and there’s no single truth. If a scientifically robust approach isn’t also pragmatic, it won’t last long.

LCA has a story to tell

To stay relevant, LCA needs to open up and link its results to what’s happening in companies. Other methodologies – like cradle-to-cradle or the circular economy – are much better at doing this. They have an appealing story to tell. A story that tickles the imagination and ambition. A story that people want to believe in. Compared to those approaches, LCA looks complex, dull and time-consuming.

Despite its complex image, LCA is still the best method we have to measure impact. So, let’s use it better. The story of the product life cycle can lead you to new partnerships, help you design new products and bust myths. Many improvement opportunities in product design and value chain efficiency were first identified by a life cycle approach.

Focusing on story, focusing on products, focusing on users: that’s what I learned from my first year as Managing Director at PRé. Next year, we will continue working on bridging the gap between science and business. If you have ideas how we can do that better, or if you have problems we could help you solve, please let me know. We’re here to support you in the challenges you face.

Eric Mieras

Managing Director

Sustainability is all about impact. Positive impact makes you meaningful. But first you have to know where you are making an impact and where you can create shared value. That’s where PRé comes in. Pinpointing your impact is an essential starting point for taking joint action with people and organisations in your ecosystem. The combination of sustainability and social business can make a real change in the way we do business.

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