Life Cycle Assessments: Uncovering the true environmental cost

November 14, 2013 - 12:12

At Carbonzero, we are fortunate to work on a variety of interesting projects each day. From determining the carbon footprint of a company’s annual convention, to the office operations of a large organization – each project is unique in its challenges. For me, however, none have been more rewarding or thought-provoking than the quintessential product life cycle assessment (LCA).

Like many others, I grew up with little regard or consideration for the impact my material possessions had on the world around me. I would impulsively buy and replace toys, clothes, and everyday products on a whim. However, as I grew older, so did my interest in sustainability and I soon began to appreciate the true cost of my daily ‘essentials’. For the average consumer, viral videos like ‘The Story of Stuff’ have also been instrumental in opening the eyes of millions to the impact of consumerism on the economy, society and the environment.

It has become evident that our world cannot sustain the current growth of industry and manufacturing, and with the ease of accessibility to information and shared resources, consumers are now demanding a higher degree of responsibility from their favourite companies. To succeed in today’s marketplace, the environmental impact of a product or service must be well managed and minimized. To tackle this issue, a growing number of companies are now turning to the comprehensive LCA process.

Why choose an LCA? A key driver in the growing popularity of the LCA is its ability to measure the complete environmental cost of a product from the time raw materials are extracted from the Earth, to the time that the product is disposed of by the consumer (see figure below). In this way, an LCA effectively measures and assesses a company’s chain of production and distribution, bringing to light activities in the life cycle that are resource intensive and pinpointing exactly where reduction efforts are best spent.

What I find most rewarding about the LCA process is its ability to highlight carbon intensive activities that may otherwise get overlooked. For instance, a recent LCA we completed for a wine product revealed that vineyard pesticide application was responsible for approximately 4% of the entire life cycle emissions. This type of information provides our clients with a unique opportunity to engage with its supply chain and ultimately ‘green’ their own operations.

What’s more, LCAs are communicated in terms of a carbon footprint (or tonnes of carbon equivalents), which makes it is easy for management, stakeholder, and public groups to interpret the results. A baseline carbon value also allows a company to measure the success of their environmental efforts by serving as a point of reference against which reduction efforts can be measured.

Perhaps most importantly of all, when a company elects to hold itself accountable for its own environmental impact, it sends a clear message to its consumers that they are valued, and that care and effort has gone into making this product the best it can be - not only for them, but the world we share.

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Jennifer Fisher, Project Manager