Communication and Collaboration as Essential Elements for Mainstreaming Life Cycle Management

Philip Strothmann, Jodie Bricout, Guido Sonnemann, and Jim Fava

Abstract This chapter addresses two major challenges for mainstreaming life cycle management that are intrinsically linked: collaboration and communication. To this end it is argued that in order to radically increase the take up of life cycle based approaches in business and government, life cycle professionals need to enhance global collaboration among themselves, as well as with others and communicate to a wider set of stakeholders. The chapter makes the case that the life cycle community does not have a home, and thus currently does not exist as one coherent and clearly identifiable stakeholder. It concludes that successful communication on behalf of and with the community can only be achieved when the community is formally organized. To this end the newly established Forum for Sustainability through Life Cycle Innovation is presented as a possible way to overcome the outlined gaps and challenges.

Keywords Forum for sustainability through life cycle • Life cycle assessment • Life-cycle based approaches • Life cycle community • Life cycle innovation • Life cycle management • Life cycle sustainability management • Sustainability

Introduction

The life cycle community has come far since SETAC and ISO first started working on standardizing methodologies in the 1990s. Tools have been developed, studies have been undertaken and some forward thinking companies and governments have integrated life cycle thinking into their policies and strategies (United Nations Environment Programme 2012).

Despite this positive development, the widespread take up of life cycle based methodologies and use of information has yet to happen. Decision makers for example still tend to simplify, zooming in on one environmental problem to find a quick fix that may have broader implications over time.

Some LCAs are also done just to tick the box for e.g. a building standard, or because a client needed it, without any further consideration. Above all, since the global economic crisis in 2008, a number of companies and governments have simply taken anything “environmental” off the agenda or reduced their efforts (Geels 2013).

Missing Links

As sustainability challenges continue to increase along with a rise in attention and global recognition of the associated issues, some life cycle based approaches, such as for example the Green House Gas Protocol or the European Commission's Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), are starting to be tested or are already applied (European Commission 2015). However, despite this positive development, life cycle based approaches are yet to be applied on a large scale to achieve tangible results. Currently, only a limited number of companies apply life cycle methodologies in their businesses to enhance the sustainability performance of their products. And due to the lack of a broad understanding of the public about life cycle approaches and methodologies, these companies are struggling to communicate their efforts in a way that resonates with the average consumer. In return, companies' efforts are currently not properly recognized by customers which reduces their efforts' value for marketing purposes. A coordinated and strong push to promote the uptake of life cycle based methodologies and concepts in companies is thus needed more than ever, coupled with an equally strong communication effort.

While the life cycle community has matured enough to address remaining methodological challenges, it is, however, still not good at explaining what it does to people who do not have a thesis in environmental chemistry or chemical engineering. Which is, however, exactly what is needed: explaining life cycle based approaches in clear terms and how they help provide solutions to many challenges facing business and government today. And it needs to be done with a global voice that takes into account modern, collaborative ways of working together, as neither individual companies nor select circles of researchers and scientist or life cycle assessment (LCA) networks are currently able to successfully drive the communication effort needed.

According to Bjørn et al. (2013), over 100 LCA networks had been developed by 2012, with at least seven new networks per year since 2008. However, 40 % of these networks have less than 20 members, indicating that collaboration is still happening in rather small circles. Furthermore, 68 % of these networks operate at a local level and over a third are in Europe. So these small circles are mostly local, and concentrated on one continent.

Still, the positive growth of LCA networks, particularly in emerging economies over the past few years is a success of efforts undertaken, for example, by the UNEP/ SETAC Life Cycle Initiative. It was launched in 2002 and has been key in boosting collaboration around methodologies and tools since then. Similarly, SETAC has provided the LCA community with some space, which has also been used primarily to work on methodological issues. SETAC's main focus, however, remains first and foremost on issues around environmental toxicology and chemistry (SETAC 2015). And while these global players have invaluable strengths and played a great role in advancing life cycle thinking around the world (Quiros 2014), they have so far not focused on working closely with industry and businesses on establishing a global push for consumer information on life cycle aspects.

In order to be successful, such a push should also be backed and driven by the entire life cycle community, instead of a number of different stakeholders with different priorities and interests. However, as outlined before, the current state of the life cycle community is characterized by a flurry of small circles, or nodes, at a local level, and a handful of (historical) global players. The community as one clear identifiable and organized stakeholder thus currently does not exist, mostly because it has no home.

The lack of such a more organized and structured community that is visible and has its own voice has, however, implications not only from a communications perspective, but also from a collaborative point of view. As outlined above, collaboration happens mostly in small circles. Due to the discussed lack of national, regional or even global coordination efforts, synergies get lost and opportunities for collaboration are missed.

While this is mostly an issue for the community itself, the consequences are relevant beyond the community. Communication is absolutely essential to help spread the word, to inform people about the benefits of applying a life cycle perspective and enable companies to put life cycle management into practice by more easily communicating their efforts.

As shown over the past two decades, life cycle based thinking and methodologies can help to operationalize sustainability efforts and are applied by companies to identify cost and resource effective sustainability improvements and highlight them to their potential clients (Box 20.1). However, in order to mainstream LCM and thus have a tangible impact on the world, the life cycle community has to get out of the small niche in which it is currently operating. Only then it can become a powerful partner to companies and industry stakeholders and work towards effectively informing consumers on the concept and advantages of taking a life cycle perspective.

 
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