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Collaborative approach to Life Cycle Assessment

Gregory Norris is a director of SHINE, the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and teaches Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) at Harvard University. He co-founded and is currently Director of Science at, a web-based platform democratizing LCA.

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Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is life cycle assessment (LCA)?

LCA, surprisingly, was created around 50 years ago, the same time as the first Earth Day during a period of environmental awakening. This was also the year that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created.  The intent was to try and answer the question: which way of making a product would be better for the environment overall?
So, the keywords are Environmental, Overall and Product – that’s what LCA is about: to look at all the issues that are important environmentally, and look at them in relation to products. However, it doesn’t have to be about products. It has been applied to lifestyles, households, regions, companies, and more.
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Does LCA also consider the environmental impact whilst using the product?

- Yes, life cycle refers to the cycle of a product from cradle to grave including, but also going beyond, the production phase. And cradle means you consider not just the creation of the product, but also the inputs used in the product, and the inputs used to create the inputs. You go all the way upstream as far as is necessary in order to capture everything that matters environmentally. Then we look downstream, at the distribution, use of the product and end-of-life management.

Since LCA also can be used for households, shopping centres, etc. How many variables can be considered in any given building?

- It’s amazing. Students and companies like to ask the question, where do we draw the boundaries? I think the true answer is, if it matters, it should be included. If there is a significant effect by the product on one of the categories of impact, then you shouldn’t exclude it. And if you exclude it, you have to justify why.
And LCA has been evolving. We now realise that the impact of a factory’s products has to be evaluated over the lifespan of the factory. Or with transportation, the LCA should include the road, even though many, many vehicles will drive over that section of road.

How do you cover all those years of the life cycle? That seems like a huge amount of data to consider.

- Great question. If we think of constructing the pyramids, many generations of people built layer after layer. Well, we also have also been building LCA information for decades, and we rely on that data made over the past decades.
When we model a product, for example, transportation is always present (rail, ocean, truck, etc.) and thankfully, we no longer need to do that modelling. All of the thousands of parameters are already contained in the databases we use for the modelling.

Where do these modelling databases exist?

- This is another great point, which connects to radically increasing the accessibility of LCA. When the first LCA’s were done there was literally one consulting firm doing the work. This was pre-digitalisation and everything was calculated with paper and slide-rules. Nowadays the databases are digitalised and one of the major contributors has been the Swiss government because the Swiss EPA funded hundreds of LCA’s done in the public domain in the 80’s and 90’s. Eventually there was so much data that it had to be consolidated into one database available around the world, and that was the birth of the Ecoinvent database – the largest, most transparent LCA database in the world. From here you can get not only a result on the environmental impact of something, but you can also ask why. You can look upstream and see the impacts. This means you can also see ‘hotspots’ – key areas which make a major impact.

Who can access the data? Can I access data of rival companies, and is the data standardised and trustworthy?

- The Question of who has access to the data is key, and moving the situation into the modern context is one of the major motivations of the Earthster project. The way we have been doing LCA is a bit like ‘the consultants were in charge’. It was as if there were 100 people in a room that wanted to talk to each other, but you could only do so through the consultants. Nowadays, with the internet and software platforms like Earthster, you can connect directly to your suppliers. You can get a model of what their processes involve and then ask them to elaborate on it so you get a much more accurate picture. It’s a way of democratising LCA.

How is confidentiality in the collaboration managed?

- My suppliers will share their footprint with me, and Earthster is also collecting data on each of the producers in the sector, and by participating, each of the suppliers can benchmark themselves against the average. However, they won’t get insights about the impact of the competitors, unless it has been made public. So, everyone gets insight about how they are doing and incentive to improve.

What format or form does the final LCA report have?

- Historically, LCA information was shared in a report, originally on paper and later digital, but still essentially a report. And although you can learn from a report, it is static. You can’t ask it any questions. What companies now need is the flexibility to be able to ask, what if? What if we source our electricity from a photovoltaic supply? What if we switch to recycled content on the aluminium we purchased? What if we send our products to be recycled at their end of life? So with Earthster we are developing a situation where you not only deliver a report, but you deliver the model itself in a usable form to the client. So, consultants can now thrive by sharing their model to their clients with a user-friendly platform like Earthster.

Are the reports standardised? Is the data of LCA’s or Environmental Product Declarations (EPD’s) comparable?

- We still have work to do when it comes to offering true comparability. The ISO standards laid out a lot of the requirements and guidelines. But we realised that there also needed to be standardisation of key decisions that are allowed within the flexibility of ISO. For example, which impact categories are addressed, which parts of the life cycle are included, how do they define the function delivered by the product? Those questions and more are defined by the EPD. It was hoped that this would solve the issue, but it seems it hasn’t because the data that is used will also differ in this competitive market context that we have.
I proposed that we evaluate transparently the uncertainty in every data set being supplied to the world, and then let’s identify the least-uncertain data solution for any question somebody’s going to ask, and that least-uncertain data set should be used when building a LCA.
There will still be questions, but really the final frontier in this question are the data sources: getting the best available data and making sure everyone is using that.

Is there a legal framework for LCA’s? Is the EU involved?

- This is a fascinating and urgent topic and actually it’s related to the interpretation of results. There have been some lawsuits recently brought against major retailers in Europe, lawsuits brought because the plaintiff claims the retailers has made claims about the environmental superiority of one product over another, apparently trying to make the consumer make a sustainable choice from within the product offerings of the retailer. The accusation was that the data was not perfect. So, the data offered, for example, on a t-shirt was data relevant to that kind of t-shirt, but not necessarily the exact t-shirt being held in the hand of that very consumer. The cotton information was based on a sample taken a few years prior, not data from the exact farms that were used to make that shirt.
Personally, I feel this is a misunderstanding on the part of the plaintiff, because we never have perfect information. We have information that is useful, with uncertainty and imperfections, and the question is, is it helpful and can it improve the probability that we make the right environmental choice? We can’t guarantee with 100% certainty an exact carbon footprint. So, we need a certain amount of maturity in dealing with this information. That’s the best we’re going to be able to do. Data is always changing and data is imperfect.
Regarding the legal framework, the European Commission (EC) is due to provide some guidance in relation to the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) project. This can be a really valuable to help standardise LCA’s. The EC has been considering requiring that if an environmental claim is made publicly by a company, they need to back it up with a LCA done according to the PEF. This might raise some issues, but it would help, and it is a serious possibility.

Finally, what would be your advice: if a company wants to reduce their carbon footprint, what should they stop doing and what should they start doing?

- I’ll give you two answers. The first thing is to look into whether you can source your electricity from renewable sources. Secondly, and this may not come as a surprise to you, make just a few days effort to obtain either a prior life cycle assessment about the products that you make / the kind of organisation you are. Or perform a life cycle assessment in what we call a Streamlined or Scoping LCA, because you may discover that the electricity you purchase is just one percent of the footprint and fifty percent of the footprint is in the use-phase or from the key suppliers.
It helps if we all take action to begin with on our own consumption of electricity, but you really do want to get some LCA insights. And you don’t have to wait six months for a $50,000 LCA by a consultant. You can jump in and get some insights either from prior LCA’s or using a tool like Earthster where you can get answers in minutes. This will give powerful insights to the question you asked.

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