LCA Inc: A brief history of life cycle assessment in the corporate world

LCA’s Beginnings

The initial seeds of LCA’s conception reach back as far as the 1950s when ideas about bioeconomics and systems ecology were formalized in Samuel Ordway’s ‘Resources and the American Dream‘ and Eugene and Howard Odum’s ‘Fundamentals of Ecology‘. However, most LCA practitioners track LCA’s humble beginnings back to the year of 1969 when Coca Cola hired the MidWestern Research Institute to conduct a material and energy flow study of their packaging alternatives. The study consisted of a comparative analysis between returnable glass bottles, primary aluminium and plastic alternatives. Harry Teasley, the Coca Cola executive who initiated the study was conscious of the need for environmental knowledge for both internal planning purposes and for public relations. Study findings suggested that plastic measured far better than the other alternatives, however, it took a number of years before Coca Cola began the switch to plastic. The MRI defined their technique as “Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis” and it was based on a “cradle to grave” systems analysis of the production chain of the investigated products.

This led to LCA’s period of conception throughout the 1970s and 1980s (spilling into the early ’90s) during a time when environmental issues such as resource and energy efficiency, pollution control and solid waste management became important to the public at large. During this time firms applied diverging life cycle techniques largely for the purpose of substantiating market claims. This time of uncoordinated efforts often led to competing firms challenging one another’s products where studies of the same products often saw widely differing results (e.g. the cloth vs. disposable diaper debates between the pro-cloth National Association of Diaper Services and pro-disposable Proctor & Gamble).

The early to late 1990s ushered in a decade of LCA standardization and convergence where a number of workshops, forums and published academic articles began to appear. This decade began to see international coordinated LCA involvement with the likes of the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). ISO eventually harmonized the LCA process with the still current ISO standards, ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. LCA then became far more credible and corporations began to adopt the technique more readily.

What LCA is, and what LCA is Trying to be

Highly esteemed science writer Daniel Goleman predicted that LCA would be a major game changer. In his book entitled ‘Ecological Intelligence‘ he described how LCA practitioners could measure material and energy flows and associated environmental impacts of products with ‘near-surgical precision’. In reality LCA actually measures only the potential environmental impact and tends to fall far short of attaining a high level of certainty in the final results. Since the global economy is essentially connected across vastly complex supply chains, the very concept of LCA’s cradle-to-grave analysis entails the accounting of essentially everything; this however, is an impossible task. The technique rather involves the application of scientific based modelling to account for the most prominent processes in a given value chain so that the major or most likely hot-spots of the system are guaranteed coverage.

Many see LCA as the essential accounting technique to sound and sober sustainability decision making. As stated in the ISO standard 14040, LCA is a technique that considers ‘the entire life cycle of a product or service and all attributes or aspects of natural environment, human health and resources’. The major insights that LCA can provide an organization about their products or services are two fold: firstly, LCA objectively ascertains exactly where the environmental hot-spots of the value chain are located (often in very unexpected places); and secondly, LCA examines several environmental impact categories such as climate change, ozone depletion, resource scarcity, acidification and human toxicity and this allows for an analysis of possible trade-offs between two or more competing functionally equivalent products or designs. LCA then becomes particularly useful in the initial design phase of a product, service or policy. As LCA advances, LCA Practitioners are always trying to reach towards the impossible task of modelling the global economy in its entirety and this pursuit likely won’t letup anytime soon.

LCA’s Big Break in the Corporate World: Walmart

Walmart had concocted a dream of undertaking 10,000 or so LCAs in order to attain a detailed LCA of every single product that they sold. With the finances to back this vision Walmart broke into the LCA world with a lot of enthusiasm and momentum. In July 2009 they announced their ‘Sustainability Index‘ that would cover a product’s entire life cycle, from resource extraction through to disposal. This led to what is now termed the Sustainability Consortium which currently boasts more than 80 corporate members, operates on four continents and since late 2012 has worked with the much larger Consumer Goods Forum to establish ‘a globally harmonized science-based approach to measure and communicate life cycles‘. There are a number of similar green initiatives around the world where LCA has gained a high degree of popularity. What was once a rather unpopular, academic and dare I say geeky system of accounting turned into the go-to approach for corporate and government initiatives to measure, disclose, inform policy and improve existing products’ cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. The corporate supply chain itself has become a breeding ground for knowledge and insight of a company’s operations and its big picture implications.

For the majority of LCA’s existence, it has for the most part been situated in a place where academics told industry that LCA will benefit you and therefore you should utilize it. With the initiatives of Walmart it really helped to open the flood gates of LCA application, where it is now industry that inquires with LCA consultancies that they need that tool. LCA has reached a renaissance where even the big four (Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young, and KPMG) have adopted it into their toolbox along with many other specialized consultancies (like Ecogamut!) where they are finding a growing demand.

LCA in industry has not been a total success however. The methodological rigor required to undertake a detailed LCA brings upon several challenges with industry: LCAs can be time consuming and cost thousands of dollars to undertake; LCAs can become too complicated for the public and results do not always turn out in favor of the companies best financial interest; more supply chain transparency can lead to greater vulnerability and potentially moral disquiet. These challenges can lead to industry misuse of LCA, which in turn harms its reputation. A notable quote from Oscar Wilde, “The truth is never pure and rarely simple” and many LCA practitioners struggle to avoid the muddy waters of complexity, data gaps and what the funding corporation wants to hear.

Signs that LCA is Here to Stay

Despite this industry unease, LCA has already proved itself to be a popular tool in both the corporate and governmental world. There are a great number of signs that LCA is thriving and will likely only get better. All companies face rising resource costs, and many are dealing with growing pressures for transparency requiring that they account for and better manage both the environmental and social impacts throughout their supply chain. LCA is one of the best tools to provide this transparency and it also protects companies from the accusation of ‘greenwash’. European Union regulations now require lawmakers to apply life cycle thinking when undertaking waste management decisions. Many European governments have looked to LCA to inform them about key policy decisions covering key sectors as recycling, public transport, food labeling and renewable energy production.

In the United States, both federal and California biofuel standards draw on LCA results. It is common practice for greenhouse gas emission reduction initiatives to require an LCA framework for quantifying reductions. China, Chile, New Zealand and others are investing in LCA research programs and LCA database development, not only for their own benefit, but in anticipation of an encroaching need to better inform global corporations of their upstream impacts. Similar to the nutritional content label of food products, hundreds of companies are utilizing LCA to substantiate their product’s environmental product declaration in a certifiable and third party verified fashion. LCA has even received extensive coverage in top-ranked journal Science, where they published their June 2014 issue on the sustainability of global supply chains.

Supply chains are likely to remain a focus of corporate knowledge production and public reporting. Citizens globally have gained an insatiable demand from corporations to see demonstrable and measurable evidence that they are making progress toward supply chain sustainability. This demand may soon become a requirement, and even if it doesn’t, LCA will remain to be an important technique towards reaching the goals of a sustainable world.