Lifetime Achievement Award – Interview with Mark Goedkoop

PRé founder Mark Goedkoop won the 2014 SETAC Lifetime Achievement in LCA Award. In this interview, he shares his thoughts about the future.

Mark Goedkoop won 2014 SETAC Lifetime Achievement Award

How did you react when you found out you won the Life-time Achievement in LCA Award?

I was pleasantly surprised, especially when I saw that the other two people who got it are people I look up to – Ruedi Müller-Wenk and Bengt Steen. I’ve worked a lot with Ruedi Müller-Wenk, and Bengt Steen has given me a lot of inspiration with his ideas.
I do hope they don’t think I have achieved everything I want to achieve – I’m not ready to go home and retire. I’m not done yet.

You started out as an ecodesigner who ran into a big problem: how do you know if something you’re doing is actually environmentally friendly? That’s when you found LCA. What potential did you see?

I liked the idea that you could be more or less rational about often emotional arguments, and try to find out what’s actually the case. At that time, people were saying ‘Well, PVC is bad.’ Okay, but does that mean everything else is good? And then you start to realize that there are no bad materials, but maybe there are bad applications of materials. You can start to develop a real, deep understanding of the relationship between products and the environment. And I like that. I like assessments, to find out about the truth.

You are widely considered a visionary and a thought leader in LCA. Do you have an overarching goal when it comes to LCA?

LCA aims to be a tool that can model ‘everything mankind does’ and assess the impacts on ‘everything we find important’. As you can guess, this is hugely ambitious and asking for trouble! Yet with all its weaknesses, complexities and flaws, LCA is the most systematic way to understand the interrelation between a product and the environment. Even critics have, in my view, never come up with a good alternative.

LCA brings transparency and rationality to the discussion. It takes the best scientific knowledge we have and translates that into something managers and designers, and perhaps even consumers, can understand. My key goal is to bridge the gap between science and business practice.

One thing you noticed right away is that LCA, in the 1990s, was hard to do and to understand. Your big watershed developments – SimaPro, Eco-indicator 95 and 99, and ReCiPe, to name a few – are all geared towards making LCA easier to do and to interpret. What are your thoughts about this now?

There’s a limit to which you can simplify LCA. What I tried to do is combine the rich reality that science tells you about with applications. You have to compromise – you can’t give the full scientific reality, so simplifying implementation was a great step forward. I don’t think you can simplify much further. You can gain more efficiency by further standardization, but you can’t pretend LCA will ever be easy. Things have to be as simple as possible but no simpler than that.

You’ve spent your career making environmental damage measurable, pioneering metrics for resources, toxins, other pollutants, and even social impact. What do you think are the most important issues in LCA today?

When we talk about environmental assessment, people still waste a lot of energy on impact categories that aren’t really that relevant, instead of on the really relevant categories – climate, land use, probably water in large parts of the world – or on the unknown factors – GMOs, nanoparticles, and so on.

What’s lacking in the LCA community is a kind of top-down view. Instead of working with standard lists of environmental problems, you should really look per industry sector. What we tried to do with the methods we developed is give the top-down view in the methodology, and get people to think about what’s relevant.

In 1990, when I started, methods were developed bottom-up. People measured emissions, thought these emissions might contribute to a certain problem, and didn’t consider whether the problem was relevant everywhere. At that time, for example, the Netherlands had a big problem with eutrophication – too much fertiliser – but in many countries in the world, there’s a lack of fertiliser and a depletion of the soil. But it became such a go-to thing to measure that people in developing countries are still reporting on eutrophication like it’s a problem, while it’s actually a benefit in some regions of the world. People just go on automatically doing what’s been done before. 

Personally, I’m shifting my focus from science to implementation. That’s the real challenge right now, I think. Science was a big problem that needed to be solved, and I hope that new people will continue developing the field, but the hotspot is now getting industries to use these insights, change their products and make better decisions.

You also focus a lot on alliances.

The simple problem is that the world is big and we are small. You can of course always look at others as if they are competitors – and often they are – but all these minuscule companies like ours can’t change the world on their own. Together, we are stronger. In the nineties we developed a reseller network – instead of trying to become as big as possible ourselves, we decided to share with other ambitious people in other parts of the world.

When talking to a company, the first question is ‘Do we see each other as competitors or are we colleagues in the same battle?’

You started PRé 24 years ago. What could you never have imagined then?

I thought the software would be a public relation gimmick. I didn’t have a business plan. But somehow SimaPro became the most widely used LCA software. I followed my nose, and I realised it’s better to share information than to keep it all to yourself. I could never have imagined getting a lifetime achievement award.

Where do you see LCA and LCA methodology 24 years from now?

I hope LCA is completely integrated by then. No longer a small community on its own pillar, with its own wisdom and its own eternal discussions. I hope by then it has become so logical to do life cycle management, to report, to make good decisions, that everyone does it.

We’ll always need to have researchers trying to think what’s next, trying to look at impacts in environmental and social problems that we aren’t even aware of, and to integrate science in social and economic tools.

The big question right now is: how important is it to be exact? How do we implement without losing the science? That’s what the future will show.

About Mark Goedkoop

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