How to Make the Life Cycle Assessment Team a Business Partner
Mark Goedkoop, Eric Mieras, Anne Gaasbeek, and Soledad Contreras
Abstract In this chapter we explore the need and opportunities to make the life cycle assessment (LCA) team more relevant for the business. Sustainability trends and alternatives for LCA are analyzed to identify what makes them relevant for and appealing to business managers, the difficulties LCA practitioners face to get their message across have been identified, and a five-step approach to make the LCA team a business partner will be described. The goal is to empower LCA teams and practitioners to create sustainable value for the business they work in.
Keywords Champion for LCA • Circular economy • LCA community • LCA team
• Life cycle assessment • Life cycle management • Product sustainability • Sustainability
Introduction: 20 Years of Life Cycle Assessment, Have We Understood the User Needs?
One may wonder why it is still a relatively small community that performs LCA and why LCA has not become more mainstream in business processes, while LCA methodology is used by thousands of companies and has proven to be a relatively robust tool for understanding the impacts of products. Most major multinational companies nowadays have something like an LCA department, which is usually a team of a handful of specialists that perform LCAs mostly to support internal decisions.
To explore this issue we first take a broad perspective of the developments in companies regarding product sustainability; these developments are too often missed by LCA practitioners. Next we will describe our findings from research we did among corporate LCA practitioners, and finally we will describe how we can link the LCA practitioners to corporate developments to make them more relevant in the business.
Understanding Major Product Sustainability Trends
About a decade ago, the LCA community was somewhat taken by surprise by the increasing popularity of the cradle to cradle approach. Multi-national companies followed suit; they did in most cases not abandon LCA, but became very active in cradle to cradle. Cradle to cradle now seems to be surpassed in popularity by Circular Economy, partially due to the lack of transparency in the cradle to cradle approach.
Interestingly enough, Circular Economy is also not a very concrete methodology; there is no ISO standard and there are no precise rules. In fact, it misses all aspects we in the LCA world find so relevant. Yet in spite of this, it has gotten a huge uptake with major companies that are even turning around the way their business works. Circular economy is of course more than an assessment method; it is a vision towards a desired future. It tries to transform linear models (produce, distribute, use and dispose) into a circular loop of products. For instance, instead of burning coal and selling electricity, major energy companies are now transforming themselves to be ready for the new reality: electricity is traded between small producers and individuals with solar cells on their roof. While this is a clear example with major sustainability benefits, many ideas in circular economy discussions are not really assessed, and often it is not clear at all what the sustainability merits are.
So what makes these methodologies popular if it is not primarily their ability to measure? What really works is that they present a vision; they tell companies, follow us, follow our guidance and we will not only help you to make products less bad, but we simply turn them into good products, as the cradle to cradle community often said, without ever substantiating what “good” is. And is vision not something which we as the LCA community are often too hesitant about?