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Do LCAs Measure Up To Sustainability?

Despite the growing use of LCAs (life cycle assessments) to measure the sustainability of products, a strong case can be made that the one has less to do with the other than most people think. By design, LCAs provide a way of quantifying the environmental impacts of products and services from cradle to grave.

But do they really measure the sustainability of products and services, per se, or report sustainability in any other authentic sense of the term? The Sustainability Consortium, a leading advocate and practitioner of LCAs seems to think so:

"As global citizens, we face extraordinary challenges: complexity of global trade and supply networks, world population growth expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, diminishing resources, worker safety and fair treatment, human health and safety … At the core of multiple stakeholders’ interests and at the center of such challenges we find the need to more accurately quantify and communicate the sustainability of products."

While it is certainly true that an LCA can reveal the environmental impacts of raw material extraction, manufacturing, shipping, product use and product disposal, strictly speaking these are all references to human activities, not products. So why not just focus on human activities in the first place instead of conflating them with or attributing their impacts to inanimate objects? Indeed, products can neither be sustainable or unsustainable; only people’s activities can -- toxic, benign, biodegradable, nutritious, dangerous, beneficial or recyclable, perhaps, but not sustainable. By shifting the focus to products, as if they are somehow responsible for the human production, use and disposal of them, we risk distracting ourselves in corporate sustainability programs from what should really be the focus of our efforts: the sustainability of organizational operations.

Consider this: if all products and services were subjected to LCA analyses, and even to management interventions afterwards that successfully mitigated their impacts, what conclusions could we reach about the sustainability performance of the companies involved? None, I’m afraid. Why not? Because LCAs do not measure the sustainability performance of organizations at all, nor even of the products and services they focus on. Instead, they measure the eco-efficiency of human activities associated with the sourcing, production, distribution, use and disposal of specific products and services – narrowly so, in fact. To say that a product life cycle's use of, say, energy this year is less than it was last year is not to say anything about sustainability performance in either year – rather, it is to beg the question.

Indeed, LCAs can’t possibly be measures of sustainability, since measuring sustainability performance requires the presence of context in the mix – or what the Global Reporting Initiative calls sustainability context. It is simply mistaken, therefore, to think of LCAs as measures of sustainability performance at all they're not. With this in mind, perhaps a better name for the The Sustainability Consortium might be The Eco-efficiency Consortium. Just a thought.

To measure sustainability performance, one has to (a) be focusing on human activities, not inanimate objects, and (b) be measuring impacts against norms, standards or thresholds for what such impacts would have to be in order to be sustainable (i.e., context in the sustainability sense of the term). Such norms, standards or thresholds, in turn, must be based on the facts on the ground, as it were, insofar as what the quality or sufficiency of vital social and environmental resources in the world happen to be or ought to be. We cannot determine the sustainability of a rate of water consumption, for example, unless we have a rate of water supply to compare it to. The same goes for impacts on other environmental, social and economic resources. Context matters!

Thus, only context-based tools, methods and metrics make bona fide sustainability measurement possible, since without context there are no norms, standards or thresholds to refer to for differentiating between sustainable and unsustainable impacts – kind of like trying to measure profitability without taking costs into account. For sure, an LCA can tell us how much water was consumed in the production of, say, a pound of beef, but it won’t tell us how the associated rate of consumption compares to the locally relevant rate of water supply. And so even if we lower our rate of water consumption as a consequence of an LCA, the lower rate, too, might still be unsustainable, if not more so -- more eco-efficient, perhaps, but still unsustainable.

That all said, eco-efficiency measures do have a legitimate role to play in helping organizations to improve their sustainability performance, but only in cases where context-based tools and methods are also being used. In cases where context-based tools reveal gaps in sustainability performance, improvements in eco-efficiency can help close them. Short of that, eco-efficiency efforts carried out in the name of sustainability might only mask or delay the inevitable by obscuring true sustainability performance along the way. Listen to how McDonough and Braungart put it in an article of theirs in 1998:

"Eco-efficiency is an outwardly admirable and certainly well-intended concept, but, unfortunately, it is not a strategy for success over the long term, because it does not reach deep enough. It works within the same system that caused the problem in the first place, slowing it down with moral proscriptions and punitive demands. It presents little more than an illusion of change. Relying on eco-efficiency to save the environment will in fact achieve the opposite – it will let industry finish off everything quietly, persistently, and completely."

To be sure, eco-efficiency tools and LCAs are a step in the right direction, but they’re no panacea. More important is the need to recognize the importance of context in sustainability measurement, management and reporting, and also that sustainable, the adjective, applies to human actions alone, not inanimate objects.


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