With companies under continuing pressure and expectation to reduce carbon and environmental impacts associated with manufactured products/services, Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs) can act as a key way for companies to calculate and report on the sustainability performance of sold goods. Through showcasing the low carbon credentials of products/services, manufacturers are able to gain a competitive advantage by attracting customers aiming to purchase supplies with the lowest carbon footprint.
What is an LCA?
A lifecycle assessment (LCA) is a tool used to understand the carbon and environmental impacts of a product/service through all stages of its manufacture, use and disposal (‘cradle-to-grave’). The process involves tracking all f the emissions associated with the product/service in order to build up an overall picture of how sustainable it is. The aim is to collate accurate and representative data which can inform future decisions regarding product design, for example; choice of materials, efficiency of equipment required for manufacturing, in-use energy, distribution to end user etc.
There are four stages to an LCA assessment as shown below;
1) Defining the Scope of an LCA
The first is defining the scope and the end goal. Effective boundaries must be implemented to begin piecing together a feasible LCA; a lot of products are made up of other products and services, creating a waterfall effect of complex and sometimes unobtainable information and data. To avoid this, the function of the product must be defined, then from this the performance requirements can be understood. This is important when defining a unit of product for the LCA calculation to be based on, e.g. per kg of glass or m3 of flooring product manufactured. Likewise, a decision needs to made on which environmental impacts the assessment will focus on.
2) Life Cycle Inventory
The second step is collecting the relevant data - known as the Life Cycle Inventory. Information is needed regarding the raw materials, energy and other components that make up the product. Furthermore, the transport, installation and product use need to be documented for analysis and quantification. Likewise, possible repairs and the end of life treatment of the product also need to be considered. All of these data sources collectively showcase the emissions and impacts of a product from ‘cradle to grave’.
To understand the phases of the product’s/services’ lifecycle, the type of data needed includes, but is not limited to:
- Energy consumption
- The distance of transportation between warehouses and the customer
- The fuel types used
- The amount of waste generated
- The energy required to use the product
- The end of life treatment, and any emissions to the air, soil or water systems
There are numerous LCA databases of industry-average figures that can provide a viable substitution for missing data if required. Through the application of accurate carbon emission factors at every stage of a good/services’ lifetime, the whole lifecycle emissions of the LCA process can be addressed, alongside identifying ways to reduce carbon emissions and environmental impacts going forwards.
3) Evaluating Environmental Impacts
Next, the analysis previously carried out is evaluated with respect to the impact categories decided at the start. A few frequently used examples are Global Warming Potential (carbon/environmental impacts), human toxicity and ecotoxicity. By characterizing the emissions identified into these categories, a stronger understanding of the environmental impacts can be gained, enabling manufacturers to make improvements going forwards. In turn, this enables consumers to purchase products/services with lower overall carbon emissions, while driving manufacturers to optimize processes in order to remain competitive as buyers seek the greenest options available.
4) Improving the Carbon Performance of Products
Finally, using everything that has been deduced, innovation of improved, lower emission processes can be implemented to start reducing the carbon emissions associated with a product. Equally important, the limitations of the assessment can be explored further and progress can be made to improve its efficiency and accuracy. With the extensive data obtained during the LCA process, key areas of improvement can be identified and processes can be adjusted to progress towards the company’s sustainability goals and evolve the brand to align with market requirements and expectations.
Corporate Drivers for LCAs
The pressure to demonstrate environmentally conscious products and services is mounting from customers, stakeholders and current/future employees alike. By completing LCAs, a company can secure its position in competitive markets and increase its resilience to future policy and legislation changes. The award of an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), a standardized document that showcases the completion of an LCA, allows for comparison between similar products and services.
This gives consumers the chance to make more informed choices regarding sustainability credentials of purchased products/services. By having the ability to select products/services with lower carbon emissions, purchasing companies can directly reduce their own scope 3 emissions associated with Purchased Goods and Services (Scope 3, Category 1 under the GHG Protocol). In some industries this is more significant than others. The built environment accounts for around 40% of global emissions1, with cement being a notable contributor at just under 0.6tCO2e per ton produced2. For companies such as the Portland Cement Association (PCA), a US cement and concrete producer, being able to showcase their reduced environmental impacts through EPDs3 is essential to stay competitive in a market that is under huge pressure to cut their emissions.
How NUS Can Help
NUS’ Energy and Sustainability Services (ESS) team can support clients with the data collection process covering a broad range of decarbonization projects. If your company is exploring opportunities to reduce carbon emissions across business operations, get in touch with your NUS consultant, contact us online, or email us at email@example.com.
More: Energy Market Commentary, Decarbonization, Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs), Sustainability
-  Built environment | Climate Group (theclimategroup.org)
-  Cement - IEA
-  PCA_EPD_BlendedHydraulic_Athena_Final_revised_Oct2023 (cement.org)