What is a Product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?
In a nutshell, a Product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a systematic approach to evaluating the environmental impacts of a product throughout its entire life cycle — from raw material extraction and manufacturing to distribution, use, and disposal or recycling. It is a crucial tool for organisations aiming to produce goods in a more sustainable manner, helping them make informed choices to reduce their carbon footprint.
The main goals of an LCA
Quantify environmental performance: Measure various environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, water use and waste generation.
Identify hotspots: Pinpoint the key stages of the product's life cycle that contribute most to its environmental impact.
Inform decision-making: Provide data and insights to guide product design, manufacturing and procurement decisions that minimise environmental impacts and improve sustainability. This can result in cost savings, improved public image and greater market appeal for customers who are increasingly interested in sustainable products.
An LCA considers all stages in a product's life cycle, cradle to grave
Design and development: The initial phase where the product or service idea is conceived, developed and designed.
Raw material acquisition and processing: The extraction of raw materials needed for production, such as mining for metals or harvesting of crops.
Manufacturing: The actual production of the product, including processing raw materials, assembly and packaging.
Distribution and transportation: The transportation of the product from the manufacturer to distributors, retailers and consumers.
Use phase: The product's use, considering energy consumption, water usage and maintenance.
End of life: The product after its useful life, whether it's disposed of in landfills, recycled or incinerated.
Who sets the standards for Product Life Cycle Assessments (LCA)?
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has standardised LCAs via the ISO 14040 series. ISO offers a universally accepted method for gauging how the lifecycle of a product or service influences a broad set of environmental indicators.
These indicators can be categorised into:
Damage to human health: Covers aspects like particulate matter formation, climate change, human toxicity and photochemical oxidant formation.
Damage to ecosystem quality: Includes factors such as climate change, terrestrial acidification, terrestrial and marine ecotoxicity, freshwater and marine eutrophication, ozone depletion, agricultural and urban land occupation, natural land transformation, and ionising radiation.
Resource depletion: Refers to water, mineral and fossil fuel depletion.
What are the steps of a Product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?
An LCA looks at each of these steps to identify and quantify the environmental impact associated with a product or service. This includes examining factors like energy usage, carbon emissions and waste production.
ISO, specifically ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, outline the four principal stages of an LCA. Each phase of the LCA is interconnected, providing a framework that can be adjusted and refined throughout the process. This systematic approach ensures a comprehensive and adaptive assessment, allowing for continuous improvement and optimisation.
Step 1: LCA goals and scope
Firstly, it’s important to establish the objectives of an LCA and define what the reasons are for carrying out the assessment.
Examples of goals for an LCA include:
Finding ways to reduce environmental impact.
Sharing your green credentials with customers.
Guiding policy-making and strategic choices.
In addition, take this opportunity to plan which data you are going to gather and the approach for collection. This will help guide the direction of the study and make sure you capture all the details necessary.
To set the boundaries for your LCA, think about:
How much of the product will you examine?
What areas will you exclude in your assessment?
What do you want the outcome of the assessment to be?
Step 2: LCA inventory analysis
Next, it’s time to determine all the environmental inputs and outputs tied to your product, commonly referred to as your product's material flows. Inputs might be raw materials and energy, whereas outputs could include waste and pollutants.
Essentially, this stage helps paint a picture of what is extracted and contributed back to the environment.
Here are some tips to follow when it comes to the inventory analysis:
Outline your product’s energy flows - the inputs and outputs that you would like to capture, including raw materials, energy usage or supplier data.
Identify the data needed for each of these energy flows, which may have already been started as you set your goals and scope.
Carry out data gathering for each activity within your assessment scope – this may be based on qualitative and quantitative research.
Analyse and evaluate your product’s input and output data to pinpoint potential risks and opportunities – this can be done by creating a flow model to gain a holistic understanding of the results.
Step 3: LCA impact assessment
It’s now time to transform the raw data into measurable impacts. When it comes to carbon emissions, this step can be streamlined by using carbon accounting tools and technology, which save time and resources through the avoidance of having to sift through lifecycle databases and the latest scientific research. We will discuss the benefits of using technologies to carry out LCAs in more detail later on.
Once you have deep dived into each of your product’s impacts and consolidated them, you can spend some time determining which are most material to your company.
Step 4: LCA interpretation
Interpreting the results of your LCA involves validating the conclusions you reached during your impact assessment and ensuring that they align with the ISO 14044 Standard, which offers a series of checks to carry out:
A completeness check.
A consistency check.
A sensitivity check.
Identification of significant issues.
Conclusions, limitations and recommendations.
Now, finally, it’s up to you to utilise the findings of the LCA as a foundation for implementing informed, data-driven adjustments to your product. For example, the results could be used to convey recommendations to key decision-makers or help shape sustainable policies within your company.
Product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools and technologies
Conducting an LCA is a complex task, particularly for those who have never done it before. The process demands a significant commitment of time, resources and specialised knowledge that may not be readily available within your organisation. That's where tools and technologies come in, which can help simplify and streamline the process.
In particular, carbon accounting software can play a vital role in conducting robust product LCAs. Here's how:
Product data collection and calculations
Carbon accounting software allows users to input data regarding various stages of a product's lifecycle, such as energy consumption, raw material usage and transportation. The software provides a centralised platform for storing and managing LCA data, ensuring that it is organised, accessible and can be reused for future assessments or for auditing purposes. This makes identifying any gaps or making changes in the data much easier than manual methods.
In addition, built-in standardised methodologies and databases for LCA emission factors and environmental impact coefficients mean that the latest science is always used for the carbon calculations, in line with industry standards.
Data-driven analysis of a product’s footprint
Carbon accounting software allows for comparing different products, materials or processes to understand which choices have a lower environmental impact. Users can simulate different scenarios using the software to see the potential impact of these changes. This data-driven approach helps in making informed decisions for improving the product's carbon footprint. Not to mention that these visualisations make it easier to communicate the findings to stakeholders as often they can be generated into sharable reports.
Connect product footprints across inventories and organisations
The value of carbon accounting software doesn’t stop there. It can act as a tool to visualise product emissions at a macro scale too through combining product emissions across inventories.
For example, the xtonnes software has been built to enable you to map the emissions of several different products and integrate them into your organisational footprint. This means you can better track your product emissions across Scope 3 categories and increase the levers for decarbonisation.
If you would like to learn more about how the xtonnes carbon accounting software can support the LCA of your product, reach out to our expert team.