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How to conduct a Life Cycle Assessment

In this article, we’ll explore what LCAs actually involve and what companies can do to carry out an effective one.
Business
2024-03-27T00:00:00.000Z
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As an increasing number of companies embrace environmental responsibility, the term 'Life Cycle Assessments' (LCAs) is becoming commonplace.

In a nutshell, an LCA is your go-to method for understanding and measuring the environmental impact of your company's product or service. But, what exactly do they involve? What is the most efficient method for carrying out an LCA, and why is it essential? Well, don’t worry, because Greenly is here to shed light on everything you need to know about Life Cycle Assessments.

👉 In this article, we’ll explore what LCAs actually involve and what companies can do to carry out an effective one.

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What is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

A Life Cycle Assessment, also known as an LCA or a Life Cycle Impact Assessment, is a complete measurement of a particular product or service’s environmental impact, across its entire life cycle (this is sometimes referred to as cradle-to-grave, but we’ll get into that later). Although you can apply LCAs to services, it is typically used in the realm of products and manufacturing, so we’ll refer to LCAs in this context throughout this article.

What is a life cycle?

Admittedly, it’s a little bit odd to hear the term life applied to a non-living thing! However, the life cycle of a product or a service refers to all the interconnected stages it goes through from conception or creation to its final disposal. This spans from the extraction of natural resources required to make it, to the release of toxins and materials into the environment when it is eventually discarded.

The life cycle of an average product or service will typically include the following stages: 

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) looks at each of these stages to identify and quantify the environmental impact associated with a product or service. This includes examining factors like energy usage, carbon emissions, waste production, etc.

👉 To learn more about what a Life Cycle Assessment is why not read our article covering everything you need to know?

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What do LCAs measure?

As we’ve already touched on, LCAs, or Life Cycle Assessments, are a method for evaluating the environmental impacts of a product or service. Throughout an LCA, all stages of a product's life cycle are accounted for, encompassing resource consumption, material processing, product fabrication, distribution, utilization, and even disposal at the end of its life.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has standardized LCAs via the ISO 14040 series, offering a universally accepted method for gauging how the lifecycle of a product or service influences a broad set of environmental indicators.

These indicators can be categorized into:

  • Damage to Human Health: This covers aspects like particulate matter formation, climate change, human toxicity, and photochemical oxidant formation.
  • Damage to Ecosystem Quality: This includes factors such as climate change, terrestrial acidification, terrestrial and marine ecotoxicity, freshwater and marine eutrophication, ozone depletion, agricultural and urban land occupation, natural land transformation, and ionizing radiation.
  • Resource Depletion: This refers to water, mineral, and fossil fuel depletion.

Utilizing the standardized ISO framework allows for meaningful comparisons between products or services, answering questions like, which product has the least environmental impact, or which is less harmful to human health.

This evaluation empowers companies to enhance the environmental performance of their products. The results can be harnessed for marketing initiatives, or to drive research and development towards a more sustainable product offering.

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Example of an LCA

To better visualize how an LCA works in a real-world scenario, let's take the example of a laptop. If you were a computer manufacturer planning to conduct an LCA on a new laptop series, here's what the analysis would divulge:

  • The necessary raw materials (such as gold, copper, and aluminum) and the amounts needed for production;
  • The energy usage, as well as waste and emissions generated during the manufacturing process;
  • The materials needed for packaging the laptop;
  • The emissions produced by the transport vehicles delivering the laptop to its final point of sale;
  • The electricity consumption throughout the laptop's lifetime;
  • The strategies for disposal or repurposing at the conclusion of the laptop's lifespan.

By assessing these aspects, an LCA provides a comprehensive overview of a laptop's environmental footprint from cradle to grave.

So, what does this actually mean for the company?

With this detailed knowledge, the company can identify areas for improvement and implement strategies to reduce the laptop's environmental impact at each stage of its life cycle. This can result in cost savings, improved public image, and greater market appeal for customers who are increasingly interested in sustainable products. Furthermore, the insights from the LCA can guide the company's research and development department in designing more eco-friendly future product lines. Ultimately, an LCA is a powerful tool for paving the way toward a more sustainable and environmentally-conscious business model.

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What are the different types of Life Cycle Assessments?

There are three different types of LCAs you can perform, depending on the level of detail required. For instance, an LCA for internal reporting on product impact might not require as much detail. However, if the LCA is intended for external use, such as for marketing purposes or regulatory compliance, a more detailed analysis may be necessary.

The three types of LCAs are:

Conceptual LCAs (Life Cycle Thinking)

Conceptual LCAs are the most basic form of life cycle assessments. They offer a preliminary evaluation of a product or service’s environmental impact based on limited data, providing a broad overview rather than detailed insight.

Results from a Conceptual LCA are usually expressed as succinct statements or simple graphics. These highlight the processes or materials that contribute most to the environmental impact, thereby helping to quickly convey key environmental information to stakeholders.

Simplified LCAs

Simplified LCAs represent a step up from the basic Conceptual LCAs, offering a more detailed evaluation of a product or service's environmental impact. They utilize generic data and standardized modules to estimate the environmental consequences associated with a product or service.

This method involves a semi-quantitative assessment that relies on pre-existing databases and industry standards. These resources provide general figures about the environmental effects of certain processes or materials, which are then applied to the product or service being assessed.

While Simplified LCAs are more comprehensive than Conceptual LCAs, they still lack the specificity of full LCAs, as they don't consider the unique characteristics of each individual product or service. However, they can offer a useful balance between detail and complexity, making them a popular choice for initial environmental impact assessments.

Detailed LCAs

Detailed LCAs represent the most comprehensive form of life cycle assessments. These involve custom investigations and data collection tailored to the specific product or service in question. They encompass thorough analysis and categorization of impact, followed by in-depth interpretation of the results.

Furthermore, the focus of LCAs can vary based on your objectives. A Social LCA, for instance, quantifies the social impact of a product, considering factors like labor conditions and community development. On the other hand, an Environmental LCA specifically evaluates a product's environmental impact, focusing on elements such as energy use and waste generation. Each approach offers unique insights, contributing to a holistic understanding of a product or service's impact.

Life Cycle Assessment standards

Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) benefit from worldwide standardization. This uniformity stems from the standards laid out by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), specifically ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, which outline the four principal stages of an LCA.

Thanks to their global standardization, LCAs serve as an excellent tool for delivering transparent, verifiable data about your company's environmental footprint. They also enable you to confidently trust and compare the data published by other organizations. The universal application of these standards ensures a level playing field for environmental assessment across industries and borders.

How to conduct a Life Cycle Assessment

We won’t sugarcoat it, conducting an LCA is a complex task, particularly for first-timers. The process demands a significant commitment of time, resources, and specialized knowledge that may not be readily available within your organization. That's where companies like Greenly come in.

At Greenly, we're equipped to assist your company in executing a thorough life cycle assessment of your product or service. Leveraging our team of climate experts and innovative technology, we aim to streamline the process, making it as efficient and straightforward as possible. Explore our services to learn how we can make your journey toward sustainability less daunting. Click here to discover more.

The 4 stages of a Life Cycle Assessment

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines four principal stages of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) within the guidelines of ISO 14040 and 14044. These are: establishing goals and scope, conducting inventory analysis, assessing impact, and interpreting the results.

Each phase of the LCA is interconnected, providing a framework that you can adjust and refine throughout the process. This systematic approach ensures a comprehensive and adaptive assessment, allowing for continuous improvement and optimization.

Stage 1: Goals and scope

In the first stage of an LCA, it's crucial to establish your objectives (i.e. the reasons for conducting the assessment). This will guide you in defining the breadth and depth of your study (how simple or detailed you’d like your LCA to be).

Essentially, this stage is the kick-off of the project, where you determine the study's scope, decide on the data to gather, and plan your approach. In short, this phase is all about deciding what you want to look into and how deep you're willing to dig. Also, this is the point where you'll decide the main aim of your assessment based on your concerns about the product or your plans for the future.

Common goals might include:

There are lots of impact categories out there, so trying to cover all of them in one assessment isn't realistic. To set the boundaries for your LCA, ask yourself:

  • How much of the product are you examining?
  • Which impact do you want to reduce?
  • What areas will you not assess?

The goals and scope you set will also give you a rough idea of how long your assessment will take, and what you'll need to do at each stage.

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Stage 2: Inventory analysis

The inventory analysis, or Stage 2, encompasses all the environmental inputs and outputs tied to your product, commonly referred to as your product's material flows. Inputs might be raw materials and energy, while outputs could include waste and pollutants. Essentially, this stage helps you understand what you extract from and contribute back to the environment.

To undertake your inventory analysis, start by identifying the data you need (as defined in Stage 1). Next, outline your product’s energy flows and gather the inputs and processes you wish to measure. This could cover raw materials, energy usage, supplier data - essentially, anything that flows in or out of the system you're examining. Gathering this data is usually complex, making Stage 2 a potentially time-intensive process.

You'll have to amass comprehensive data for each activity within your scope. Consider this as your data-gathering phase. You may need to carry out both qualitative and quantitative research to gather the necessary information. This might involve expert interviews, literature reviews, and surveys. In certain situations, even after all these efforts, you might not have sufficient data and might have to depend on industry estimates.

After collating your input and output data, it's vital to carefully analyze and evaluate it to pinpoint potential risks and opportunities. Organize it clearly to gain a holistic understanding. Flow models are often recommended for the final part of this phase, which will then pave the way for Stage 3.

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Stage 3: Impact assessment

During Stage 1, you decided on the impact categories you wanted to delve into - perhaps you opted to focus on carbon emissions, water usage, or some other environmental factors. Now, in Stage 3, it's time to assess those specific impacts.

Your impact assessment will involve transforming raw data into measurable impacts. To do this, you'll need to consult life cycle databases and scientific research to better understand the implications of your life cycle inventory (a product of Stage 2).

In this phase, you'll dive into each of your product's impacts and sort them into predefined categories such as global warming or human health. You'll then consolidate these impacts to get a clearer picture of each category. The final step involves determining which of these impacts matters the most to your company.

Stage 4: Interpretation

Interpreting the results of your LCA involves validating the conclusions you reached in Stage 3, and ensuring that they align with the ISO 14044 standard. This standard offers a series of 'checks' that help confirm whether your conclusions are substantiated by the collected data and employed methodologies. The fourth stage unfolds in five steps:

  • A completeness check;
  • A consistency check;
  • A sensitivity check;
  • Identification of significant issues;
  • Conclusions, limitations, and recommendations.

Upon the completion of Stage 4, the ball is in your court to utilize these findings as a foundation for implementing informed adjustments to your product or conveying recommendations to the key decision-makers within your company. You could even leverage your LCA findings to shape policies and governance within the business.

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Why conduct a Life Cycle Assessment?

Assessing the impact of your products through an LCA is one of the most trusted ways to measure and disclose the environmental impact of your company and your products. LCAs are unique because they are so rigorous and are firmly grounded in data. Other systems for measuring the impact of your products do exist, but none are as quantitative or comprehensive as LCAs.

Publicizing your LCA results not only keeps consumers in the loop but also enhances your brand reputation and outlines a roadmap to reduce the environmental impact of your products by pinpointing critical areas for improvement.

Given the versatility of an LCA and its repeated usability, it presents a valuable investment for companies genuinely committed to minimizing their environmental footprint.

While a variety of individuals may show interest in your LCA results, certain departments within a company typically request and utilize these insights more frequently. These include:

  • Management and executive teams;
  • Marketing and sales departments;
  • Supply chain or procurement teams;
  • Product and R&D units.

Let's take a closer look at some of the benefits of an LCA:

Visualize Your Environmental Impact

LCAs help you visualize and quantify the total impact of a product. You’ll learn about the materials that construct your product, the carbon emissions generated as a by-product, and the potential environmental harm caused by your product's waste.

Identify Carbon Reduction Starting Points

These days, many businesses are interested in reducing their carbon footprint, mitigating their environmental impact, and becoming eco-friendly. Conducting an LCA enables companies to trace the most significant sources of carbon emissions throughout the life cycle of their products or services. This detailed insight identifies the precise stages where carbon reduction efforts can be most effectively applied.

👉 To find out more about carbon management, why not read our article on the topic.

Manage your supply chain impact

The GHG Protocol's Scope 3 addresses emissions within the supply chain, which for many businesses, are the primary source of their environmental impact. By conducting an LCA, you can gain an in-depth understanding of which segments of your supply chain contribute most to emissions. This awareness will empower you to effectively pinpoint areas for potential improvement and start exploring viable alternatives for a more sustainable operation.

👉 To learn more about Scope 3 emissions, why not check out our article.

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Enable comparisons

The standardized nature of an LCA simplifies the process of comparing the environmental impacts of different products or product categories within your business. Furthermore, it even allows for a transparent comparison between your products and those of your competitors. This comparative analysis can provide crucial insights and help guide strategic decisions regarding product development and sustainability efforts.

Improve brand image

Life Cycle Assessments inspire trust and connection between brands and consumers. In today’s market, consumers are more informed than ever before - and also much more conscientious. 

In fact, 75% of millennial consumers consider a product or brand’s sustainability before making a purchase, which means that figuring out - and communicating - the environmental impact of your products is crucial to standing out in the market and attracting a new generation of consumers.

Carrying out LCAs not only showcases your commitment to transparency but also enhances your ecological reputation. This can attract environmentally conscious consumers looking for sustainable products and simultaneously strengthen loyalty among your current customers, who value your dedication to environmental responsibility.

Motivate employees

An increasing number of employees are seeking employment with companies that prioritize their environmental footprint and uphold strong values. Embarking on a Life Cycle Assessment is a commendable first step in fostering a business environment that respects and nurtures our planet, thereby attracting such motivated and conscientious talent.

👉 Studies have shown that 67% of those looking for employment are more likely to apply for jobs at an environmentally sustainable company.

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New opportunities

When you cater to other businesses, making the results of your LCA transparent can be a strategic move. By showcasing the environmental responsibility of your products and processes, you position yourself as a desirable partner for businesses actively striving to minimize the environmental footprint of their supply chains. This transparency not only provides valuable insights into your operations but also opens doors to new business opportunities, as you align with the growing demand for sustainable sourcing and responsible procurement.

Regulation compliance

Sometimes, government regulations may mandate your business to conduct an LCA. While it's true that not all companies around the world are required to do so at present, a future where LCAs become a legal obligation might not be too far off. Therefore, seizing the initiative now and familiarizing yourself with the LCA process could prove to be a strategic move, putting you ahead of the curve when regulations inevitably tighten.

Product development

In our increasingly eco-conscious world, it's important that new products are designed with their environmental impact in mind. LCAs can help R&D teams to compare the environmental repercussions of various materials, suppliers, and processes. This valuable information can guide the development of new, more sustainable product lines.

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Streamline operations

LCAs serve as an illuminating tool that shines a spotlight on various aspects of your production chain. This robust examination often uncovers not just environmental impacts, but also operational inefficiencies and potential areas for optimisation within your existing processes.

Improve strategic planning

Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) provide crucial data, insights, and recommendations to key decision-makers within your company, enabling informed strategies and policies that drive meaningful changes to its environmental footprint. By comprehensively tracking the environmental impact throughout the entire life cycle of products or processes, from extraction to disposal or recycling, LCAs uncover potential areas for improvement and ensure that no aspect is overlooked. Armed with this knowledge, your company can implement targeted measures to reduce emissions, minimize resource consumption, and optimize waste management, fostering a more sustainable future.

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How can you ensure your Life Cycle Assessment is 'useful'?

For an LCA to be genuinely valuable, it must align with the goals set in Stage 1 and be scoped appropriately to support those objectives. 

While not all LCAs aim to inform environmental impact reduction, we firmly believe their true usefulness lies in pinpointing areas where your company creates negative environmental effects, and highlighting opportunities for improvement.

Goals

Defining your goals is pivotal before embarking on an LCA. Understanding the purpose and motivation to gain insight into the environmental impact of your products lays the foundation for a valuable LCA. Once these questions are answered, you can determine the most relevant and beneficial type of LCA to benefit your company.

Detail

An LCA must strike the right balance to be truly useful. If it's too high-level and lacks clear insights for future focus, or overly detailed, causing confusion and uncertainty, its value diminishes. Therefore, in Stage 1, precise goal-setting and scope definition is crucial to ensure the assessment's results effectively inform your next strategic moves.

Action

Measurement is a necessary first step on the journey to running a more environmentally friendly business, but by itself, it’s not enough. A Life Cycle Assessment only becomes truly useful when it highlights areas where your product causes unnecessary harm — and even then, your company must be committed to rectifying this negative environmental impact.

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Life Cycle Assessment alternatives

When considering your product's life cycle, several approaches offer insights into its impact, but none match the rigor and quantitative depth of a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA). Among the alternatives are:

  • Cradle to gate - This approach assesses the product's impact from production until it leaves the factory gates, simplifying the LCA and accelerating the process.
  • Gate to gate - A mini-LCA focusing on a single process in your production chain, providing insights into specific areas of your product's life cycle quickly.
  • Cradle to cradle - A concept rooted in the circular economy, this method emphasizes recycling waste to become new raw materials for other products or industries.
  • Well to wheel - Tailored to fuels, this LCA covers the life cycle from raw extraction to emissions during usage.
  • Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) - Standardized (ISO 14025) and independently verified certifications that measure a product's environmental impact; they are typically used to compare the impact of products in a similar category.
  • Environmental Impact Assessment - Evaluate the potential environmental impact of proposed construction projects.
  • Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment (EIO-LCA) - Utilizes averages to estimate materials, energy, and emissions within specific sectors of the economy.

While these approaches offer valuable insights, a full-blown LCA remains the most comprehensive and robust method to holistically understand your product's environmental impact and make informed decisions.

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What about Greenly?

If this is your first time conducting an LCA, we recommend partnering up with experts. 

If you want to get a clear picture of the life cycle environmental impacts of your products, talk to the team at Greenly.

We help businesses just like yours conduct useful Life Cycle Assessments to measure the carbon impact of their products.

Don't wait any longer, take the first step towards reducing your carbon footprint by requesting a free and non-binding demo with one of our experts today and finding the solution that best fits your business needs.

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