CBSR Blog: LCA: Where Analysis Meets Approach

Sep 16, 2011 10:00 AM ET


By Lorraine Smith

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about the value of life cycle analysis, or LCA, as a tool to advance sustainability practice. It is often touted as an important and robust way to ensure correct data is being incorporated into the decision-making process.

I don’t disagree with this, and I hope we continue to see increased uptake in LCA studies and growing interest in organizations with the expertise to conduct them.

But a lot of companies balk at LCA for a host of reasons. It’s too expensive, they say. It’s an overwhelming amount of data. It’s more for the product engineer folks, not the strategists. And on and on.

Enter the other LCA, where “A” is for “Approach”. Taking a life cycle approach is, in essence, applying the concept of life cycle thinking without necessarily conducting a formal LCA. Sometimes this means leveraging existing life cycle data and applying it to a different situation - fortunately, there are many LCA studies made available to the public. And sometimes, it just means using common sense - something that isn’t always present when well-intended marketers or strategists run with the sustainability agenda.

Take, for example, bamboo. If the garment and retail companies who were touting bamboo as an “eco-fabric” had taken a life-cycle approach, the conversation would have been very different. Instead of promoting it on the merits of the raw material’s fast-growing, low pesticide inputs, purveyors of these garments would have sought to understand where the greatest impacts of these clothes are across the whole value chain. There is ample data to indicate that the consumer use phase (i.e. laundry) has among the highest impacts of all the life cycle stages of most garments. There is also ample data to indicate that while bamboo may require fewer inputs than, say, cotton at the raw material stage, it requires far more at the manufacturing stage.

In other words, regardless of the fabric choice, if these companies want to drive real change, their best bet might be to influence consumer habits in a shift to cold water washing and hanging to dry. Some companies have embraced this approach, such as Levi’s with their “Care to Air” program, a contest promoting line drying. It doesn’t take a financial planner to figure out that—whether or not you win the $10k cash prize - you save money by hang-drying clothes. In fact you save money, reduce environmental impact, and maybe even improve social factors such as reducing depression rates, if data from Project Laundry List are to be believed. Life cycle thinking leads to triple bottom line impacts in many surprising forms.

This is just one example, and it happens to have a consumer focus. But some companies, including those further upstream in the value chain, are also taking a life cycle approach. For example aluminum products manufacturer, Novelis is “closing the loop” on its products—from pop cans to car doors—with a goal to use 80% recycled material by 2020. And carpet manufacturer Interface has been applying life cycle thinking for years as they work towards their Mission Zero goals, a mission which leads them to look at their customers as raw material suppliers to dramatically reduce their reliance on primary materials.

For Novelis and Interface, there is significant data from formal LCAs, either conducted internally or on behalf of the industry however the principle remains the same: these companies are taking a life cycle approach to their whole business, and they are leading change that is having an impact.

For sustainability efforts to truly drive change, to be more socially, environmentally and economically viable, it is critical to ensure that there are in fact real impacts caused by the efforts, and that they are the right impacts. Taking a life cycle approach is key to enabling this. Our colleague from Germany forecasts the need nicely:

"In future, companies will need lifecycle and lifestyle managers, professionals in a position to pinpoint areas of improvement along the entire value chain. And they can foresee what customers want -- in other words, how they will live and what they will consume in years to come."
 - Michael Kuhndt, Head of Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production, Wuppertal, Germany


About the Author: Lorraine Smith is a sustainability consultant who combines private sector and NGO experience to bring about positive social and environmental change. As an associate at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility, she applies her knowledge of corporate social responsibility and stakeholder engagement within the consumer goods life cycle including garment, electronics and groceries.