Content Coms Explains: Why life cycle analysis is more complex than you think


For some years now, a phrase has been bandied about in sustainability circles; life cycle analysis (LCA).

LCA and sustainable business are becoming best friends, but the story isn’t yet completely cosy. So what’s the lowdown on LCA and its advantages and challenges?

What is LCA?

LCA aims to establish the true carbon impacts of a product over its entire life cycle. That includes the mining of the materials it’s made from, through to the day when it’s recycled, put in landfill, burned for energy, or any other ending.

LCA is important because if we really want to know how sustainable something is, we have to understand every impact it has throughout its useful life.

For example, a product might be made from a seemingly sustainable source. But then, if we can’t recycle it, suddenly it’s less sustainable, because all the energy and CO2 invested in making it can’t ever be reused or recovered.

Equally, one might consider a recyclable aluminium can sustainable. But aluminium takes a huge amount of time, energy and CO2 to originally mine, and then turn into a drinks container.

If we want to really understand which choices are best for the environment, and hence for sustainable business, we need some comparative way to look at each option, and then judge comprehensively which way to jump.

So far so good; LCA seems like a good idea. Which it is. However, it is also fraught with challenges.

The issue with LCA

In this article, the author discusses LCA (or what he calls whole life analysis) in the concrete industry.

He argues that to truly understand the carbon credentials of concrete, or any building product, requires a whole life approach.

This is true. But, as yet, there remains no globally confirmed methodology for how LCA (remember, it’s the same as whole life analysis) is done.

And herein lies the issue. Because there are no rules on how LCA is carried out, firms can contract a university to perform an LCA on their product, and instruct it to only look at the elements that will come out favourably in the wash.

One expert we spoke with, when asked why every company’s LCA always seems to make their product seem the most sustainable, commented that is was, “Strange; why on earth does this happen I wonder?”

He was hinting LCA is becoming a sales tool, used to market a product as sustainable, when actually elements of the product’s life impacts have been cherrypicked to present it in the best possible light.

For those who are interested, this paper examines LCA’s challenges. It reveals; ‘Multiple problems occur in each of LCA’s four phases and reduce the accuracy of this tool.’

The paper also calls for peer-reviewed, standardised LCA inventory and impact databases. It argues these efforts would help alleviate persistent problems with data availability and quality.

In a nutshell, it agrees that LCA, as of today, is a useful but flawed tool, prone to bias.

What next for LCA?

Content Coms advises every business that uses LCA to think honestly; are we performing this test truthfully, and is our modelling designed to sell, or to realistically determine our CO2 impacts?

“At Content Coms, we’re experts in sustainable business and marketing,” says Joanna Watchman, CEO. “We know that any marketing which seeks to mislead is destined not only to fail, but to harm business and the environment.

“There’s a very bright future for LCA. But it must not be used with bias in shortsighted attempts to market on sustainability claims that aren’t true, or at least don’t paint the whole, genuine picture.”


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