Best Practice

Life Cycle Assessment Measures Climate Impact and Sustainability of Products and Their Manufacturing Process

winmills on a sunny day showcasing the need for sustainability of products

What gets measured can be managed. At least this is, in theory, how we can know if a business is healthy. If we use that same perspective to measure the sustainability of products, it’s possible to find opportunities to improve them — and the operations it takes to make them. In fact, the only way to address concerns such as an increase in carbon emissions is to make changes at the product, material and operational levels

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at EPA.gov reports that 21% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from the industry sector primarily involved in fossil fuels burned on site at facilities for energy, according to 2010 research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This percentage also includes emissions from chemical, metallurgical and mineral transformation processes not associated with energy consumption and emissions from waste management activities.  

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released statistics in 2020 that attributed 45% of the carbon emissions to manufacturing, while the remaining 55% came from the building sector.

Carbon Neutrality Goals 

It is imperative for the industrial sector to reach its committed goals involving the absolute reduction of emissions. And this is just carbon. However, businesses must first set these goals.

In a recent article for Greenbiz.com, Terry Yosie, former president and CEO of the World Environment Center, wrote that the large majority of enterprises do not have climate change as a major focus. He was quoting a study released in June 2021 of the climate commitments made by the largest Fortune 500 U.S. companies. Only 17% of companies have committed to a comprehensive net-zero or carbon neutrality goal. 

In a 2016 publication, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) explained why it might be taking enterprises time to commit: “In this global business environment, new types of risks are constantly emerging, including those inherent in the increased importance of environmental and social sustainability in business. Yet businesses lack an understanding of these types of risks, underestimate the potential impacts and often can’t control what triggers them.

Given that reducing carbon is a topic that many don’t even know how to address, one of the steps to reducing apathy is educating the industrial sector. When the industry learns that every flow of materials and resources used in any industrial practice has emissions associated with its extraction and processingand that this contributes to pollution in different ways, whether it is by emitting gasses or in the form of waste there is a commitment to slow and reverse the course of action.

If more companies are informed and aware of their share in the problem, the commitment will turn into practices that determine where the challenges are and which strategies are needed to tackle them. 

Measuring Impact 

A practice that is helping in the measurement of emissions is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This is a science-based method that assesses the impacts of products, materials and operations across the full life cycle of products. LCA is a cradletograve assessment based on ISO 14040 and 14044 standards. It relies on life cycle inventory data from the primary manufacturer and its supply chain, uses a software solution to conduct the assessment and requires a dataset of materials with associated emission factors.

The way it works is simple: LCA gathers information at the product and material levels. In addition to typical product data, the inventory examines recycling content, recyclability, transportation modes and distances, scrap and waste, looking at these factors during final manufacturing, during installation, during use and at the end of life. It also accounts for energy and water used in the production by mass, total production or economic value.

LCA is a comprehensive method that covers every angle of the product life cycle. There are sources of industry data that can be consulted when primary data is incomplete. After the data gathering phase, the product is modeled in the software solution using appropriate country or region data.

Reducing Impact 

Next, the assessment is conducted, and carbon and additional environmental impacts are identified. It’s time to brainstorm. What are the lowhanging fruits at the product, material and operations levels that will reduce carbon and other relevant impacts?

Depending on the product and the main goal of reduction or improvement, there can be multiple strategies, but in general they can include any or all of the following:  

Depending on the product and the main goal of reduction or improvement, there can be multiple strategies, but in general they can include any or all of the following:  

  • Disassembling to x% of homogeneous materials. 
  • Specifying single materials and avoiding blends. 
  • Using highly recyclable commodities and reducing virgin material use. 
  • Choosing materials with lower carbon and energy content. 
  • Sourcing renewable energy for manufacturing. 
  • Reducing transportation distances and sourcing from local or regional suppliers. 
  • Integrating environmental considerations into the design and development phases. 
  • Guiding designers on what materials to choose or to avoid.  
  • Defining design features that enable separation and recovery of materials and/or extended use of products to keep waste out of landfills. 

The list can continue at different levels and dimensions, and there are multiple opportunities for carbon reduction. However, any action first starts with measuring the current situation.

Ana Maria Leal is the founder of AMLY Sustainability in Orlando, a consultancy that offers services in the sustainability of products and supply chains. She can be reached at info@amlysustainability.com or www.amlysustainability.com



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About the author

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Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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