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Broad Acceptance of LCA is One of the Greatest Victories During my 25+ years of Sustainability Work

by Lise Laurin, Earthshift Global CEO

LCA’s transparency, flexibility, and scientific foundation give us unprecedented ability to assess and manage impacts and pursue effective sustainability goals

Day-to-day environmental news features so much polarization, pushback, and general doom-saying that it’s easy to be discouraged. But on the flip side, after 25 years of sustainability work, I can say with confidence that our collective ability to assess, anticipate, and manage impacts is stronger than ever, largely because of our success in winning broad mainstream acceptance of life cycle assessment (LCA).

An LCA quantifies and interprets flows to and from the environment over the entire life cycle of a product or service — the impacts of materials and energy used for production, as well as use and disposal. Result: a comprehensive and previously unavailable system-wide view of the true environmental tradeoffs inherent in a vast range of product-related decisions and selections.

When I started my first consulting business in 2000, this type of analysis was hardly mainstream. I used to say that my market was the Fortune 10 and a handful of universities.

Today, while it isn’t the sort of thing that makes headlines, LCA explicitly underpins many recent US environmental policies and laws (including tax credit programs introduced or enhanced in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act), as well as the newly propagated Canadian Clean Fuel Regulation and a host of initiatives in the European Union, China, Japan, and elsewhere. And for an even wider range of public programs, LCAs have evolved from being a suggestion to an option, and now increasingly a requirement.

Global uptake of this type of analysis, including the growing fields of carbon accounting and environmental footprinting, is one of sustainability’s great victories, something we could only dream about in my early days. It’s the result of a gradual decades-long process, an example of what writer Rebecca Solnit calls “the long trajectory of change behind current events…the slow journey of ideas from the margins to the center, seeing what is invisible, then deemed impossible, become widely accepted." 

Figure 1.  References to Life Cycle Assessment 1993 - 2023.  Datasource: Environmental Science & Technology

LCA’s slow and steady advancement can be seen in Figure 1, which shows the annual number of articles referencing Life Cycle Assessment published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. After just a handful in the 1990s, the rate kicked up in the early 2000s and, after some moderation, has surged again in 2022 and 2023. And in parallel, the subject matter has evolved from basic methodological questions to tightly focused assessments of specific situations.

Transparency, rigor help LCA win acceptance

Key reasons for LCA’s uptake are its transparent, scientific approach, and its ability to address a range of impacts beyond carbon emissions and climate change. When conducted in accordance with well-established standards and presented appropriately, LCAs offer one of our best available tools for ensuring that the actions we take as companies, nations, and a society are in fact supporting our goals.

Additionally, conducting LCAs has gotten far easier and less expensive. I recall hearing back in the early 2000’s, when my company’s primary business was selling SimaPro software to those early adopters, that a typical LCA cost around $200,000 (about $340,000 today, adjusted for inflation).

One big factor was that, in those days, databases like ecoinvent and the US LCI were still being developed. Without easily accessible data for things like vegetable oil and glass bottles, most LCAs required research well up the supply chain. The release of ecoinvent 1.0 in 2003 was a real game changer, substantially dropping the cost to do a study, and the ISO’s 2006 update of its LCA standards also helped by streamlining and reorganizing its best practices for data and interpretation.

These trends enabled more organizations to leverage LCA in pursuit of their goals, which brought us an increasing number of requests for training and coaching (and helped me realize that even if a company had purchased LCA software, they often needed outside help for conducting the actual studies). Our first hire was a trainer, and coaching is still a substantial line of business for us today — a clear sign that employers see in-house LCA skills as a strategic asset.

Debate: A sign of health

One recent event brought home to me how far things have advanced. As Canadians debated legislation that would become their 2022 plastic waste law, advocates on all sides cited LCA findings to support their positions (read more: https://earthshiftglobal.com/blog/canadas-plastic-waste-ban-illustrates-the-important-role-of-life-cycle-assessment-for-policymaking-and-public-debate), with important points being made about the complexity of ensuring that regulations achieve the desired goals. For example, while single-use plastic shopping bags are an obvious target for concern, especially in coastal areas, it’s worth noting that they often get re-used for tasks like household trash collection and dog-walking, and that some other sort of bag would be needed in their absence. And because a reusable shopping bag’s production requires substantial materials and energy, it doesn’t provide a net benefit unless it is used many times.

Within the community of LCA practitioners, we’ve seen equally enthusiastic discussion of questions like how to handle processes that produce more than one product (i.e., multi-output processes). The wonderful long-running listserv hosted by PRé consultants has hosted heated (but almost always polite) arguments over how to split the impacts, because people are still seeking more insight into the right way.

For what it’s worth, my sense is that there is no “right way,” because different approaches to splitting the impacts provide different insights, and any one of them might prove valuable in a given situation.

The challenge is even greater when we look at handling impacts of a recycled product. Which life takes the impacts of the virgin material? Is there any end-of-life “credit” if it gets thrown in the recycle bin? What if the item thrown into the recycle bin actually goes into landfill or incineration, or worse, the ocean? Or, if a model takes no burden for the use of recycled product but then takes credit for avoiding the use of virgin material when recycled at end of life, it can potentially appear as if more material was put into the ground than taken out!

Ongoing maturation, and a promising future

Hashing out these types of questions is an essential part of LCA’s ongoing maturation process, which I hope and expect will continue for many years. This evolution reflects the complexity of both modeling and impact assessment, and a shared understanding that the models we use will be increasingly helpful as they more accurately reflect reality.

I’ve been especially encouraged through the years by our active worldwide research community, drivers of the publication record depicted in Figure 1. Their efforts have produced a number of improvements over traditional ways of doing things, like enabling people to create models when they’re not certain what should be in them, or conducting stochastic assessment of comparative products based on Multicriteria Decision Analysis.

While these advances are not supported by existing LCA toolsets, new-generation software will allow them to be taken up in everyday practice, setting the stage for even greater effectiveness. In addition to drastically reducing the time needed for an analysis, they can allow it to be done earlier in the product development cycle. At the same time, they promise even more robust decision support for non-LCA practitioners at all levels of management, engineering, and other disciplines.

The fact that this is happening in commercial and governmental organizations of every size is vivid evidence of how very far we’ve come. In my early days, few people even knew what a carbon footprint was. Now, most have at least a basic understanding of the concept, the companies and agencies they work for often have reduction goals in place, and LCA provides a widely accepted tool for implementation. And as cities start running out of water, large regions grapple with climate-driven disruptions, and the effect of toxins on our health becomes clearer, I see LCA becoming even more mainstream and even more in demand.