Wait! Before you go...

Subscribe to TheShift e-newsletter for LCA and sustainability resources and news.

Boot Camp: Three Questions About Sustainability Basics

Interested in getting started in formal sustainability analysis? Here are three relevant questions we posed to EarthShift Global CEO Lise Laurin about her Introduction to Sustainability Assessment class, which is the Day 1 curriculum for our upcoming Sustainability Assessment and Planning Boot Camp.

What’s the most useful first step or new skill for someone who has no formal sustainability background but wants to act on their environmental beliefs?

The first skill is to be able to identify the more sustainable solution in a given situation. With some things, like energy reduction, it’s straightforward. With others, like substituting one material for another, it’s often not clear cut and sometimes the results can surprise you. This course is a great entry point, as it covers the basics of sustainability assessment—environmental, social and economic—and gives a basic understanding of how to go about assessing a particular decision.

Isn’t the best solution just to have each company reduce its impact within its factories?

No – you can’t make effective assessments with such a narrow perspective. It’s essential to consider the whole system of material and energy flows. Take a coffee maker, for example. If the manufacturer uses a glass carafe instead of a steel carafe, that minimizes impact out of the gate because metals carry such a high burden. But if they had used an insulated steel carafe, the amount of energy saved by the insulated carafe can more than make up the difference between glass and steel.

Or look at corn based-ethanol. When we make ethanol from corn as a replacement for gasoline, the greenhouse gas emissions may be reduced a bit if we only look at the farm. But what if those cornfields previously grew soy for cattle feed? To replace that feed, rainforest land might get slashed and burned to grow soy. At the same time, the overall cost of corn increases, which makes it more difficult for people in emerging nations to afford a staple food. The answers aren’t as simple as we’d like, but they aren’t so difficult that we can’t find solid conclusions.

I’ve heard that LCA is the best tool to use for both environmental and social assessment. Can I just use LCA and skip the rest?

LCA is a great tool and we rely very heavily on it. But LCA focuses on average impact and not worst-case scenarios, so it doesn’t capture risk -- and risk is a huge part of sustainability, because catastrophic failures can have serious environmental and social consequences. Examples include everything from the risk of human exposure to PVC fumes in a fire to large-scale events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the deadly collapse of the Savar Building in Bangladesh. Understanding the strengths of different methods helps you pick the most appropriate analytical approach(es) for the questions you’re trying to answer, and that’s exactly what we’ll be focusing on in this course.