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Why is a life cycle assessment important?‍

Measuring the environmental impact of your business or product by means of a life cycle assessment (LCA). Read here how this is important for you.

It’s not an if-question any more, but a how-question. One of the largest beer producers – Heineken – recently indicated that increasing resource prices are posing a serious threat to their production [1] – and thus profit. The shortage can be explained by increased demand, but largely also by extreme weather patterns, causing soy and grain prices to explode. Not to mention all other crops and commodities.

Hence, the question is: how will environmental issues affect your company? The changing global landscape — i.e., climate change, resource depletion, impact on biodiversity, but also an increased demand for transparency — are already affecting business’ stakeholders directly. But in order to know where your environmental impact – your financial risk – is, you need to know where you stand as a company. You need to assess the risks and environmental hotspots in your supply chain. 

One way of doing this is measuring your company’s environmental impact by using a lifecycle assessment (LCA). With an LCA, we quantify the environmental impact of products, or your complete organisation. Earlier, we wrote about what a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is. Here’s we discuss why a life cycle assessment is important.

Marketing and communication with an LCA

Sustainability – unfortunately – is still often inextricably linked with being more costly. Perhaps greener products in the supermarkets tend to be less cheap indeed, and we all know how we as consumers pick our products once we stand in front of the shelves. But not only do ‘cheaper’ prices lack reflecting the true price – emissions to the environment during production are not included – also the benefits of sustainable products are often not taken into account. 

It is a challenge to truly substantiate how much your product is ‘better’ than the competition. With an LCA, you can measure these environmental benefits. By conducting an LCA-study, potential benefits of the sustainable decisions you make can be mapped and compared to the costs. As a result, you can make funded claims on the environmental effect in your communication towards your customers. 

Example of communicating LCA results to consumers - Unbegun case

Consumer demand: sustainability

Consumers are becoming more and more aware of sustainability. A recent survey performed by Deloitte among consumers shows that 32% of consumers currently are adopting a more sustainable lifestyle [2]. Furthermore, 15% of the consumers indicate they lack sufficient information to make sustainable decisions. There seems to be a demand for more transparency in order to make sustainable decisions. A life cycle assessment creates this transparency and avoids so-called greenwashing.

Example of communicating LCA results to consumers

Sustainable procurement

For most companies, potential environmental impacts do not occur on their own facility. But this doesn’t mean companies are free of responsibility or possibilities. Often the environmental impact comes from the materials and resources that are purchased within the supply chain, which we call scope 3 emissions based on the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. 

Focusing on sustainable procurement would mean purchasing materials from suppliers with the lowest impact and putting a long-term strategy central. Inherently, this means looking at your product differently and going back to the design phase of your product. This would also mean building a more in-depth and valuable relationship with your suppliers, because teamwork is key here. 

Hence, the LCA gives insights into the different environmental effects from materials and the suppliers and gives you the option to explore scenarios with other materials and suppliers. Subsequently, we built environmental product declarations (EPDs), basically an LCA summary, which you can use to communicate the environmental footprint of your product to your customers.

Decision-making with LCA

Operational efficiency

Besides the environmental impact from your suppliers, a company’s own (production) processes need inputs as well, like energy. These inputs can probably be linked to different machines or production lines within your company. When these inputs are translated to environmental impact, a hotspot analysis can be conducted and can indicate where efficiency improvements can be made. Coca Cola was actually one of the first commercial companies conducting an LCA. In the early days (1969) Coca Cola only produced the classic glass bottles, but at a certain point it became interesting to look into other material alternatives, albeit from a cost perspective. Now we’re all familiar with Coca Cola’s aluminium cans and plastic bottles.

Product innovation with an LCA

For sustainable product innovation, the product life cycle assessment is the ideal tool. With an LCA software, you, or your product-design team, create a digital twin of the product. In this digital twin, different configurations and raw material can be tested with direct feedback on the environmental impact on over 27 different impact categories.

List of 27 impact categories of the example life cycle study on e-reader vs books

We often work together with product-design teams. With quick communication between design and the digital twin of your product, you can really design sustainable products far beyond production. Including cradle to grave allows you to create a sustainable product system beyond the first life cycle.

Public procurement with EPDs and MKI-scores

Within the private-public domain you also see this in the Dutch construction sector. Here, through tenders, not only the financial costs are asked in tenders, but also the environmental costs. This creates a mechanism for governmental institutions to stimulate sustainable practices and favour sustainable companies. During subscription in a public tender the tendering party requests your EPD. Based on the quality of the data and the relative environmental performance ‘fictional discounts’ are awarded. These fictional discounts are subtracted from the total price during determining the economically most valuable subscription.

Environmental legislation: Green Deal

The European Commission has big plans, presented as the Green Deal. It outlines a roadmap to make the EU economy more sustainable by turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities in different policy areas. The aim of the Green Deal is to stimulate the efficient use of raw resources and materials by transitioning to a clean and circular economy. Part of this Green Deal is that carbon intensive products will become more expensive. The Green Deal also proposes to substantiate sustainability claims made by companies by actually calculating the environmental footprint of their products, but also their organisation. The numbers tell the tale. With your LCA, you are prepared for the Green Deal. It supplies the information you need to anticipate on upcoming regulations.

Sustainable investment with LCA insights

Large organisations, like investment companies, banks, and pension funds also slowly shift their capital towards more green initiatives. In a report of the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, it was described that more than a third of all assets in five of the world’s largest markets account as sustainable investments, with a total of $35.3 trillion [3]. This is an astronomical number. Investors are increasingly driven by environmental, social and governance-related (ESG) factors that traditionally are not captured in a company’s balance sheet, but that can influence future returns.

“This growth is being fuelled by rising consumer expectations, strong financial performance and the increasing materiality of social and environmental issues – from biodiversity to racial equity to climate change.” Simon O’Connor, chair of the GSIA, said.

Hence, investors are more and more feeling climate change as an investment risk. In our next blog we will dive deeper into this investment risk and the transparency in the investor’s portfolio.

Conclusion

The reason for a company to decide to perform a life cycle assessment also reflects the importance. The goal and scope of the LCA partially depend on this reason. For example, if the reason, and therefore the goal, is sustainable product innovation the scope can focus on cradle-to-gate. System boundaries then include everything from raw material, other inputs and outputs during production, up until the factory gate.

Download the full fourpager of LCA results of Unbegun.
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This article is written by:
Saro
Saro
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