Life-cycle thinking beyond LCA

In one of the previous posts we discussed the benefits of adopting a life-cycle thinking from the very early stage of the development, focusing on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as the most popular way to implement the approach. But LCA has its drawbacks, most of all its complexity: compiling a fully-fledged LCA is time intensive, requires some expertise and delivers a comprehensive, but unmanageable picture of the environmental impact of your product. The result? Low acceptance outside the specialists, especially among those decision makers that would gain valuable insights from it.
In many cases there is no way around a full LCA, if you want to obtain ecolabels for example, or if you want to compare your product with the competition, or even raise claims. But in most cases a full LCA is not necessary, you can choose leaner options and still achieve the most precious result of this analysis: a throughout understanding of the system in and around your activities.

Let’s review some of the most popular tools for life-cycle thinking:

  1. Carbon footprint calculators: just tip these words in a search engine and you will find dozens of online tools, with different degrees of complexity and accuracy. They offer a user-friendly implementation of the LCA, keep databases and impact analysis methods in the background, and limit the analysis to the climate impact, which is, as a matter of facts, the most relevant impact for most stakeholders;
  2. Qualitative assessments done by a multidisciplinary team of experts. For example, an ABC analysis, where the most impacting factors along the product life stages are assessed and priorities for further action are set, or the Product Line Analysis, where each stage is evaluated with a traffic-light logic, with criteria covering all three dimensions of sustainability;
  3. Checklists are also a valid tool, , in case products and processes keep a comparable structure from case to case. They collect the lessons learned by you and can be customized to your needs, , but they would not capture new environmental aspects in case of new architectures or disruptive innovations.


Product Line Analysis

These methods are able to give a realistic assessment of the environmental burdens with limited resources, provided they are used by multi-disciplinary teams of experts, and can be used already in a very early stage of the development, where their potential is highest. Besides the advantages in terms of efforts and flexibility, these tools can be easily extended to include social aspects, and cover thus all three dimensions of sustainability, or to highlight aspects typical of the circular economy (for example, the employment of recycled raw materials, reparability, second-hand potential).
Numerous generic templates are available for these qualitative tools, but it is advisable to develop own checklists and templates, tailored on the own products and (most importantly) on the company’s sustainability policy. To enhance confidence in the methods and refine the assessment, external experts can be involved in the assessments in the first applications, and full LCA can be conducted on selected examples, to verify the results of the qualitative methods.
No matter which method you choose for your analysis, remember that no method will take decisions for you, ,they will deliver insights and numbers as fundament for your handling. Life-cycle thinking is most effective, where the sustainability policy is clear and decisions are steady.

How can we help?

  • Supporting the choice of the best suited method
  • Developing and customizing assessment tools
  • Raising awareness on life-cycle