- Diversitech Team
A Guide To Sustainable Product Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA)
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA) is the process of evaluating the environmental impacts of sustainable products, services, or processes throughout their entire life cycle. This includes assessing how the product is made, used, and disposed. SLCA helps identify opportunities to reduce negative environmental impacts and promote sustainable practices.
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What Is Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment?
Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA) identifies, quantifies, and evaluates the environmental impacts (inputs and outputs) of a product, service, or activity, from cradle to grave. The environmental effects of all phases of the product's life, from extraction through manufacturing to usage, recovery, utilization, and disposal are calculated.
The LCA is descended from energy modeling research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, LCA was developed and expanded as a result of these studies.
The different stages of a product's life cycle can have many environmental impacts. These are called life cycle stages. SLCA allows you to determine the ecological ramifications of your sustainable product or service at any point during its life cycle.
Characteristics of Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment
Life cycle assessment (LCA) studies focus on different things depending on the scope: from cradle to gate looks at raw materials until they reach the factory, gate to gate just focuses on manufacturing processes, and cradle to grave encompasses everything from raw materials until disposal.
LCA is designed to help you make more informed choices about the raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, and end-of-life of products. It takes into consideration the full lifecycle of a product, from its creation to disposal, and calculates the environmental impact of each stage. This allows you to compare and make decisions based on which has the least negative effect on the environment.
LCA is frequently used by businesses and consumers to evaluate designs, goods, or services that provide the same result. Environmental impact is compared in terms of LCA.
LCAs are also used for other tools and processes, such as eco-labels, writing environmental statements or policies, setting regulations, benchmarking, collecting data, and identifying areas that need improvement. LCA is a great way to encourage preventative and proactive environmental management, rather than wait until things go wrong and then try to fix them.
Types of LCA
There are many different types of LCA. The most common are:
1. Product-oriented LCA's: Focuses on individual products and the environmental impacts associated with their manufacture, use, and disposal.
2. Process-oriented LCA's: Examines the environmental impacts of specific industrial processes, such as chemical production or metal smelting.
3. Life cycle inventory (LCI) LCAs: Collects data on all materials and energy inputs and outputs from cradle to grave for a product or process.
4. Life cycle assessment (LCA) studies: Evaluates the environmental impacts of different stages of a product's life cycle, from raw material extraction to disposal.
5. Life cycle costing (LCC): Examines environmental costs and applies to environmental accounting and budgeting.
6. Life cycle management (LCM): integrates life cycle principles into business and management structures, rather than just conducting a once-off LCA.
7. Streamlined LCA: is a leaner approach to LCA, cutting costs and time involved in conducting an LCA.
4 Phases of Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment
Broadly speaking, the goal of an LCA is to:
Quantify or otherwise characterize all the inputs and outputs over a product’s life cycle
Specify the potential environmental impacts of these material flows.
Consider alternative approaches that change those impacts for the better
A report for internal use (for example, a screening LCA) has fewer requirements than a report that will be used for marketing or other external communication (an ISO-compliant LCA).
Developing an LCA can be a very involved and lengthy process. It is a well-known method that has been made official and trustworthy by the ISO. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has established standards for LCA in ISO 14040 and 14044. These standards define the four phases of an LCA:
1. Goal and Scope definition
This is where the LCA's goals, assumptions, and limits are defined ie. It is important to know what processes, elements, and activities will be evaluated.
The environmental impacts of energy, materials, emissions, and so on are determined, classified, and quantified. The result of this process is a comprehensive inventory table that lists all environmental impacts.
The environmental impacts of the product/process/activity are assessed to determine its sustainability.
The outcomes are interpreted or evaluated. Environmental improvement possibilities and value judgments are made based on the findings. The products and services, as well as the activities associated with them, are compared.
Benefits of SLCA
Life cycle analyses are a widely popular tool to increase a company’s sustainability strategy. While the overall goal of the assessment is to review environmental impacts, social and economic impacts are considered as well. This is because the analysis usually includes information that fits into all three pillars of corporate sustainability. The three pillars are environmental, socially responsible, and governance.
Reducing their carbon footprint or wasteful practices can help organizations improve their environmental sustainability pillar.
The social responsibility pillar comprises of activities that are beneficial to the company's staff, clients, and the community.
The third pillar, the economic or governance pillar, entails maintaining honest and transparent accounting practices as well as regulatory compliance.
The advantages of carrying out SLCA are:
1. Enables concerned parties to integrate large quantities of varied environmental, economical, and social data into a structured format.
2. Assists in identifying trade-offs between the three sustainability pillars, life cycle stages, impacts, goods, and generations by providing a more thorough view of the benefits and drawbacks throughout the product lifecycle.
3. Consider the complete spectrum of consequences associated with products and services so that you can be more accountable for your company.
4. Encourages value chain actors to become more aware of sustainability issues.
5. Identifies faults and enables further product life cycle improvement for companies and value chain actors. It enhances decision-makers capabilities of finding more sustainable production methods and developing more sustainable and innovative items, for example.
6. It translates complex decisions into practical alternatives, prioritizing resources and investing them in areas where there are more opportunities for positive impacts and fewer chances of negative ones.
7. Helps those in charge make decisions that will allow them to choose materials, technologies, and products that are eco-friendly and sustainable.
8. Help consumers choose items that are not only cost and eco-friendly or responsible, but also more sustainable overall.
9. It could help with product green labeling, branding, and marketing campaigns.
10. When enterprises communicate accurate information about their environmental impact, they gain credibility with the public.
Challenges With SLCA
The usefulness and legitimacy of LCA is a point of contention. Used correctly, LCA may provide useful information to assist in decision-making.
1. Defining LCA Boundaries And Scope
Where should I set the boundary? What characteristics am I looking for when comparing them against one another? How much detail do I want to go into when identifying and measuring these material flows in the supply chain?
2. Data Availability
Is there data to calculate material inputs and outputs at all stages of my defined scope? Is this data from a trustworthy source, for example (e.g., manufacturer)?
3. Quantifying Environmental Impacts
How can we interpret these material flow data sets into environmental impact categories (for example, global warming)?
4. Weighting Impacts Across Stakeholders
Out of all the environmental categories, which one are we most worried about and how does it compare to others? Also, a normal LCA does not incorporate Social implications.
Who Needs Sustainable Lifecycle Assessment?
The results from your LCA can help with various aspects of business, such as product development and marketing. Not to mention, it can assist with strategic planning and policymaking.
For example, product designers can explore how to make their design choices more sustainable. They can also look into ways to reduce the environmental impacts of their products throughout their life cycle. Additionally, they can investigate how they can improve the social and economic sustainability of their products.
Policy-makers can make well-informed decisions by taking into consideration all major environmental impacts of a product, such as global warming, deforestation, and water pollution. They can also look at the benefits and drawbacks of implementing certain policies related to sustainability. By doing so, they can make more informed decisions that will have long-term positive impacts on the environment.
Sustainability managers can use an assessment of the portfolio to determine what steps are necessary to achieve carbon footprint goals. Factual data is available to marketing teams for sustainability messaging in branding and marketing campaigns.
A purchasing department might look into which suppliers have the most sustainable products and procedures. They can use the results of a life cycle assessment to help make more informed decisions about the products they choose to buy.
Sustainable Life Cycle Assessment vs Other Approaches
The two most well-known life cycle approaches apart from LCA are:
Cradle to Cradle is a Manufacturer's process in which all materials used during production can be reused again later.
The circular economy approach is a system focused on eliminating waste and keeping resources in use for as long as possible.
1. Cradle to Cradle
The cradle-to-cradle certification program employs qualitative judgments to determine whether a product may be certified. The criteria for being sustainable include using items that won't harm people's health, component reuse, renewable energy and effective carbon management, water conservation, and social equality.
Unlike LCA, cradle-to-cradle does not inquire whether a certified good has a lower overall environmental effect - the lowest score on the above criteria is given to the product’s overall mark.
For more information on sustainable certifications and seals see this article
2. Circular Economy
The circular economy is an innovative way to generate value for the economy, society, and business while also decreasing resource use and environmental damage by reducing, reusing, and recycling.
Related: Recycling vs Upcycling: What’s the Difference?
The MCI (Material Circularity Indicator) looks at how circular materials are. You can combine the LCA's strength, the inspiring ideas of the MCI, and the circular economy principles to form a comprehensive approach to the manufacturing and retailing of sustainable products.
Final Thoughts on SLCA
A sustainable product life cycle assessment is a powerful tool that can help manufacturers and retailers make informed decisions about the environmental impact of their products. By understanding the different stages of a product’s life cycle, companies can identify areas where they can reduce waste and emissions, leading to a more sustainable product.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate sustainability into your product development process, we can help. Our team of experts can guide you through the product life cycle assessment process and help you find ways to make your products more environmentally friendly. Contact us today to learn more.