When designing for sustainability, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is our parachute – it provides a steer towards the best landing spots. It gives us more time to review the landscape and ensure our path is correct, avoiding obstacles on the way and guiding us to our target.
We can’t jump towards a solution blindly – we need to be more informed. 80% of a product’s impact is determined at the design stage. We use screening LCAs as a design tool to steer us towards the best path, the right first steps on the journey, ensuring that effort is not wasted on routes that won’t yield the same benefits. LCA gives us insights that fuel creative solutions and forces us to address difficult but necessary challenges. It is proven to be the best approach to understand, measure, and improve a product’s environmental impact, helping to shift thinking from cradle-to-grave towards cradle-to-cradle – moving from linear thinking to circular economy solutions. So, what is an LCA? How can we use LCA as a design tool to make the most positive changes, and what are the optimal steps in that design process?
An LCA is like a digital-twin – a virtual model capturing the physical activities involved in delivering a product or service. These stages include raw material extraction, manufacturing, transport, use, and end-of-life options. It breaks down all the inputs that go into making something exist and looks at the outputs that occur as a result. An LCA represents datasets that capture key aspects such as energy consumption, raw materials usage, emissions generated, loss of habitat, as a result of making a product or service. The LCA process allows us to assess many environmental metrics but is commonly used to account for the carbon footprint of each individual part of a new product.
LCA is fundamentally a reporting tool with general uses including supporting certification, analysis, and benchmarking. However, we use it as a design tool. In the early stages of a design process, it helps guide the strategy towards the best decisions for the greatest return. This data informs design about the areas that can have the most positive outcome for people and planet. Decisions based on good data.
In most cases, an LCA will highlight the area that warrants the majority of focus for improvement, innovation, or rethinking. But how do we get there?
There are four steps in the Life Cycle Assessment process, outlined below, that can all influence each other. The fourth step is the most exciting – this step involves interrogating the data from the previous steps, challenging any assumptions made, and then beginning Sensitivity Analysis – this is the step that allows us to challenge, rethink, reimagine different offerings or solutions that could enhance the user experience while having the best sustainable outcome.
1. Goal & Scope – This step defines what it is we’re looking at, and what is the purpose of the study. A key aspect is establishing a functional unit (e.g. 1 transport mile), to allow us to meaningfully capture the inputs/outputs that relate to making this thing. This step requires us to draw up a system boundary, how wide a net do we cast to capture the processes and activities involved in the product delivery. An important factor in LCA is understanding the cut-off, i.e. how far we need to go in capturing enough data to provide us with a meaningful and representative capture of the product system. We might revisit step 1 when data availability or subsequent learnings, require us to re-evaluate what we’re trying to model.
2. Inventory Analysis – This is when we build the model and get into the detail of understanding the life cycle. This is often the most time-consuming part. Due diligence is critical here to get the most accurate data (quantities, masses, energies). The gold standard is to use primary research, however, this is often not possible due to the difficulty in getting access to the data as many companies keep their processes under lock and key (like factory reports on energy usage). The good news is that many great reference models and inventory datasets exist that vastly speed up the approach, which help us gain an understanding of the most important aspects we need to be considering at the initial stages of design.
3. Impact Assessment This step calculates the impacts from all life cycle stages on global environmental damage, human health, and the use of resources. There are many specific different environmental impacts to consider such as toxicity, acidification, ozone depletion, pressure on non-renewable resources. We predominantly report the Global Warming impact (but often make environmental decisions informed by the other categories as well).
This impact assessment step crucially captures all the relevant inputs and emissions related to the specific impacts and relates these to normalised metrics. In the case of Global Warming, it looks at all life cycle emissions of Greenhouse Gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs and relates these to the warming potential of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is what we mean when we speak of Carbon Footprint.
Thankfully, these calculations are largely automated and built on informed models from the scientific community. The resultant data shows us how much impact the product or service is having and, crucially, the life cycle stages and activities that act as the source. We then have a very sound understanding of where we can have a positive effect and, ideally, introduce significant improvements.
4. Interpretation. This step involves interrogating the data (back and forth with Steps 2 and 3), verifying assumptions, and ensuring we have enough understanding of the high-impact aspects. An important component is the ‘Sensitivity Analysis’. Here we assess, for instance, what effect it would have if we changed the source of energy in production or used an alternative product construction method. This is the most interesting from a design perspective, as it allows us to challenge, rethink and reinvent new ways to solve difficult problems. The model helps us to assess which strategies, tactics and approaches will have the most bearing on improving sustainability, often leading to innovative breakthroughs.
As we emphasised in our Sustainability Mindset Report; “Data derived from LCA is valuable, but the interpretation and collective awareness of the data is the most important part”. We imagine it as a different offering, formulating new ideas that could enhance the user experience while having the best sustainable outcome.
When making a real sustainable change to a product or service, it’s vital to first become aware of its impact. Life Cycle Assessment highlights this and gives us the necessary control to take confident action. Used in the early stages of a design process it helps guide businesses towards the best decisions for the greatest return. The data yielded as part of a Life Cycle Assessment informs design on the areas that can have the most positive outcome for people and planet. LCA helps highlight which factors designers have an influence over – Is it the nature of how the product is delivered? Is it the lifespan? Are the end-of-life materials no longer accessible to us? Understanding the resource usage and outputs allows us to appreciate the collective total impact by changing and improving components of the LCA.
Success cannot be achieved by chasing specific metrics in isolation. An LCA points us towards the correct metrics to focus on. For instance, instead of striving for incremental increases in recycled material content, effort could be spent on innovation in areas where we have more control, and a greater opportunity to drive larger environmental benefits. It ensures we approach challenges holistically and prevents us from chasing marginal gains in one area of the life cycle.
Engaging on a credible journey to sustainability will inevitably be disruptive to your business. It’s not an either/or option of choosing growth or a more sustainable approach. It’s about embracing a new, innovative new mindset. LCA will allow you to review the landscape, avoid obstacles and be confident that you are on the right path.
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