Leading Sustainable Organizations
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In the last 20 years, life-cycle assessment (LCA) has grown from the academic exercise I learned as a grad student to an accepted decision making tool for sustainability management. A large number of companies, from Apple to Unilever, employ LCAs in their sustainability work, often at substantial expense. LCAs are data intensive, requiring a team of diverse professionals working collaboratively across organizational functions.
Given the effort and cost involved, what are the strategic benefits of LCA — and should you be employing them?
At its roots, LCA is a method to quantify total sustainability impacts — like resource use and environmental damage — over the entire life of a product, from “cradle to grave,” as they say. While there is informational value in the basic exercise, the real utility of LCA is comparison — that is, comparing one product’s sustainability impacts with another’s. These comparisons can be made with existing products, or they can be made with future innovations still on the drawing board. Thus, there is a “now” and a “next” of LCA use.
The Now of LCA
Companies perform an LCA on existing products to assess baseline environmental performance. This then forms the basis for prioritizing performance improvement investments. Your LCA product profile will highlight “eco-hotspots” in the lifecycle, which are where the bulk of environmental impact occurs. A Siemens LCA of lighting, for example, found that the majority of environmental impact came from the use phase in customer’s homes and spurred the company to improve lamp efficiency. Alternatively, LCAs identify hotspots in manufacturing processes, as in the microchip industry, where LCA fingered toxic solvents in chip production as a major impact and led to cleaner substitutes like lemon juice.
Another “now” use of LCAs is marketing and commercial. Customers today routinely request the sustainability performance information that LCAs can provide. The German furniture manufacturer Kusch+Co uses LCAs to produce environmental product declarations for their entire product line, proof points that are integrated into the company’s marketing copy. Documenting marketing claims in this way builds customer trust and avoids charges of greenwashing. Australian vintner Taylors Wines uses LCA to validate its 100% carbon neutrality claims, for example.