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Understanding “Alternatives” to Life Cycle Assessment

While LCA aims to be a neutral basis to measure sustainability impacts without having a vision for a desired future, we also see attempts to make LCA more meaningful (Kiron et al. 2015). In December 2013 a large conference around natural capital was organized in Edinburgh and over 500 people joined; many industry leaders and leaders of international organizations all shared their enthusiasm for this new concept called natural capital (or as we say in LCA: monetization). We spotted only one other representative from the LCA community. In the meantime, we have seen overviews of more than 100 initiatives to develop natural capital methodologies, all outside the LCA community, all reinventing the wheel and forgetting that the very first serious impact assessment method based on monetization was developed by Bengt Steen in 1989. The big idea is to develop metrics that are understood by the CFO (chief financial officer) and CEO (chief executive officer). Developing metrics that assure results are compelling for the business is probably something the LCA community could learn from.

Another development which is largely missed by the LCA community is the methodology developed by the sustainability consortium. They started out developing an LCA based method to assess products on a large scale, but failed to do so. Therefore, they switched to a procedure that focuses on hotspots and improvement opportunities in the lifecycle. This shift seems to be working very well and we should learn from this.

Coming from another angle, but with the same core idea to make results more meaningful and also to give guidance to the management is the recent discussion to link metrics to planetary boundaries. One idea is to develop a “planetary boundary enabled LCA method”. The Stockholm Resilience institute identified eight planetary boundaries, or levels of impacts we should not pass. Initiated by Unilever, a “planetary boundary enabled LCA method” is being developed by a group of experts led by the University of Surrey, with the involvement of Unilever.

The Risk of Ignoring These Trends

In our vision we cannot ignore these trends if we want to ensure a relevant role in policy and business. The assumption in the LCA community is: What gets measured will get managed. This works if managers understand the measurements and can set goals. This works when they talk about revenues, ROI and strategic targets, but what to make of LCA results? Should they set a reduction target of 20 %? Why 20? And why not 5 or 50 %? They do not have a reference, do not have a gut feeling and often not a clear vision about what LCA results can mean for them. This is what these new concepts do so well; they come with a vision that is understandable, that is actionable and often simply “feels good”, or they come with a financial metric that managers (think) they understand, or a reference to something like planetary boundaries. In the case of TSC, the idea is that KPIs and improvement opportunities are based on a general consensus from science, NGO and industry. All these “alternatives” seem often more attractive than an accountancy-like calculation procedure that reports indicators in incomprehensible midpoints. However, there is hope. LCA is the only systematic way to measure, or at least it is much more consistent and transparent than any of these alternatives.

Table 9.1 Partners and participants in round tables

Country

Partner organization

Remarks

Sweden

Miljögiraff

Mixture of companies and research institutes

Denmark

2.-0 LCA

High attendance: 10 companies

UK

SimaPro UK Ltd

Also consultants

France

EVEA

Focused on eco design

Italy

2B

Focus on luxury food companies

Germany

GreenDelta

In German language, only in 2012

USA

PRé North America

Only in 2014, several industry associations

 
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