The life cycle assessment (LCA)
The life cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process or service, by:
- compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases
- evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases
- interpreting the results to help make a more informed decision about the human health and environmental impacts of products, processes and activities.
Life cycle assessments involve cradle-to-grave analyses of production systems and provide comprehensive evaluations of all upstream and downstream energy inputs and multimedia environmental emissions. For a typical product, LCA takes into account the supply of raw materials needed to produce the product, the manufacturing of intermediates and finally the product itself, including packaging, transportation of raw materials, intermediates and the product, use of the product and disposal of the product after use.
LCAs have been done on a huge variety of products and processes, including jet engines, drinking cups, computers and waste disposal, however they can be costly and time-consuming, thus their use is often limited as analysis techniques in both the public and private sectors. Streamlined techniques for conducting LCAs are needed to lower the cost and time involved with an LCA and to encourage a broader audience to begin using the LCA.
The benefits of a LCA are:
- to focus on the most significant environmental impacts as the company develops and evaluates sustainability programs and policies.
- to inform product decisions to reduce the environmental impact from design and materials to manufacturing.
- to support engagement with external stakeholders to reduce the impact of materials and consumer care.
Ultimately, the purpose is to allow for accurate and expedient comparison of a product’s environmental performance – enabling significant reductions in the environmental impact of all products.
An LCA can also be used to assess the end-to-end environmental impacts of a business decision on overall value creation. The International Standards Organization (ISO) created ISO 14040 and 14044 standards for conducting LCA studies.
Such studies involve four steps:
- establishing the goal and scope of the study
- taking a life cycle inventory
- conducting a life cycle impact assessment
- interpreting the results to make a business decision.
The first step for any life cycle study is to establish the sustainability goals. The most common goals are:
- identify cost savings
- enhance brand value for competitive differentiation
- improve design decisions
- make better procurement decisions
These will be discussed in more detail using a case study on Levi Strauss next.