SETAC Europe 2023: Three key takeaways, and what we’re doing about them

Our mission is to cultivate a vibrant ecosystem of fact-based sustainability. One way we connect to the research community is by attending scientific conferences. There, we learn about new advancements to share with our network and find new collaborations to grow it even further. In May 2023, we attended the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Europe annual meeting. SETAC is a global organization connecting over 5,000 professionals, and this event focused on data-driven environmental decision-making.

Three main themes emerged during the conference

We attended to participate in the dialogue and identify new developments in life cycle assessment (LCA). Across research presentations, expert panels and topical discussions, three key themes emerged: data, standardization, and collaboration.

1. Data

While many presented new data and approaches, other researchers raised their ongoing concern about limited data accessibility. For instance, Agneta Ghose (Aalborg University) noted that the challenge is not just whether the data is there. Even if the right data exists, you still need to be able to find it, access it in an interoperable format, and verify the quality. Agneta Ghose shared several data harmonization initiatives from cultivated datasets such as ecoinvent (included by default with SimaPro), directories like GLAD, and generic repositories like Zendo. The message is clear: an easy-to-navigate, harmonized and inter-operable approach would be of great help to allow the community to accelerate its work.

2. Standardization

A more standard approach is needed to guide method choices in LCA, particularly for allocation of multi-functional processes. The choice of methods can drive large differences in results. For example, assigning environmental impacts based on volume could yield very different results than allocation based on price. Alessandro Arrigoni (European Commission’s Joint Research Centre) shared a specific case study highlighting conflicting results arising from method choices. During his talk, an ad-hoc survey of the audience indicated that nearly a third were not sure which approach should be used for his example. Miguel Brandão (KTH) confirmed that fears of inconsistencies are shared by nearly half of LCA practitioners responding to a large survey. These inconsistencies could lead to differences that mask both true sustainability and greenwashing. Developing a stronger consensus around standard approaches will become critical for the LCA ecosystem to move forward.

3. Collaboration

Collaboration across sectors, industries and perspectives was highlighted across SETAC. Keynote speaker Peter Fantke (Technical University of Denmark) identified the shared goals of LCA and risk assessment (an approach used by ecotoxicologists) as ideal for cross-fertilization. Marisa Vieira (PRé), Ana Morão (Corbion) and Ralph Rosenbaum (IRTA) explored how to enable more collaboration between industry practitioners and researchers. The top barrier identified during the session is that data confidentiality in the private sector limits the transparency needed for effective research. Discovering shared norms around balancing confidentiality and transparency will be key to unlocking the wider collaboration and data sharing needed to create impact. Building trust between stakeholders is a critical element to enable this.

How PRé and SimaPro are already working to support the ecosystem’s needs

The goal to cultivating a vibrant ecosystem of collaboration and sustainable impact is a foundational element of our strategy. Several of our ongoing projects directly contribute to overcoming the barriers identified during the SETAC meeting. For example:

  • Data: Our database team is exploring how to improve data interoperability and availability to better empower our broader ecosystem. We’re also building an internal team to provide an LCA database to the European Commission, as part of the Environmental Footprinting efforts. Our hope is that this effort will contribute to filling in gaps in the data ecosystem.
  • Standardization: To harmonize approaches that empower fair comparisons across LCAs, PRé actively contributes to the development of product environmental footprint category rules (PEFCR), organizational environmental footprint sector rules (OEFSR) and other harmonized methodologies. These standard rulesets and background data help prevent greenwashing by ensuring that product comparisons are comparable and reproducible.
  • Collaboration: It is part of our core way of working to connect partners across the ecosystem to share ideas and innovate collaboratively. For example, we are working with A.I.S.E. industry experts on a revision of the Charter for Sustainable Cleaning. This will help the sector deliver on the Green Deal objectives and address uniting the risk assessment and LCA perspectives of toxicity.

Key next steps for the ecosystem

While our ongoing work is complementary to the core needs we saw at SETAC, further steps are needed. Next steps that we see for the broader community include:

  • Data: Helping the community reach consensus around how we share data, such as interoperable formats, terms and conditions.
  • Standardization: Expanding the existing baseline of PEFCR development to cover more industries, understanding what drives variability between studies, and reaching consensus on rules of thumb for comparable and reproducible results.
  • Collaboration: Effective collaboration requires trust, built on shared norms that balance all stakeholder’s interests. From SETAC, we learned that finding the right balance of confidentiality and transparency is an important first step. In addition, we identified communicating and collaborating on social media as a key next step to more easily bring peers together.

Reaching broader consensus on norms regarding these three priorities will help unlock the full potential of our community. Are you interested in becoming part of the solution with us? Join our team or explore collaboration opportunities with us.

Note: This article synthesizes our understanding of the presentations and discussions shared at SETAC. Although we have named the sources of our inspiration, this article does not reflect the direct content or views of the speakers themselves.

Kimberly Bittler

Database team lead

Kimberly worked at PRé between 2021 and 2023. Initially joining as an Operations Manager, she later moved on to become the Database Team Lead where she helped the newly-created team grow and become a keystone within the company.

Laura Golsteijn

Senior Consultant

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.

Marisa Vieira

Director of Solutions

The time of the industrial revolution is over. Now it is time for the green revolution to go full steam ahead! Everybody needs to be involved in this process, therefore I aim to guide individuals and businesses in understanding the trade-offs between impacts. This will help them make informed decisions, which will truly help sustainable living thrive."

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