At a conference on New Metrics, it seems fitting to begin with a discussion of the current state of life cycle analysis (LCA), one of the earliest quantitative tools that practitioners had for measuring impact. Initially applied to a narrow set of functions such as carbon footprinting, today’s LCA has evolved to incorporate expanded dimensions, issues and scale, as we learned in this half-day workshop on the morning of day one.
Cynthia Cummins, the Deputy Director of GHG Protocol at WRI, started us off by discussing her firm’s ongoing analysis of corporate value chain footprint categories. We assume that LCAs are typically conducted to help understand the impact of internal operations and product components, she said, but what if your operations are less than 5 percent of your emissions? How can you incorporate value chain impacts?
Greg Norris, co-director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Entrpreneurs (SHINE) at Harvard School of Public Health, reminded us that we can never get our footprint to zero. Our only goal should therefore be to give more than we take. He urged us to expand the boundaries of our LCA vision to include topics such as slavery and other human impacts. Norris also introduced the concept of “handprinting” as a form of LCA or impact measurement. In examining handprints, Norris demarcated that, “If you’re causing change, that’s a handprint. If you’re simply enabling it — that’s good, but it’s not a handprint.”
Finally, Norris revealed that the largest impact we can have on human health is through the workplace. That’s a huge handprint, and a very achievable one for many managers.
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Moderator Jon Dettling, Managing Director for the US at Quantis, also reminded us of the temptation to make an LCA of everything. Lists of environmental concerns can quickly overwhelm us — which are important? Dettling feels that LCA tools can help us make sense of that and described many implications for policy actions as a result of more focused analysis. For example, Quantis has used LCAs to help the state of Oregon define and market a new efficiency program for smaller homes.
Tom Gloria, from the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment and Industrial Ecology Consultants, reminded us that though we often think we’ve solved the carbon issue, we haven’t. He cautioned practitioners against allowing our desire for progress to become an impediment to it; we can’t let the tail wag the dog – we can’t let our data shift our LCAs. We are seeing a reduction of categories but also in the need for change, according to Gloria, and this needs to shift.
Delving into one more recent issue for LCA application, Emmanuelle Aoustin, CEO of Quantis International, discussed the corporate and product metric of “Water Footprinting” and walked through Quantis’ approach to focusing on this important resource. How LCAs are used in different contexts becomes important as we tease out the differences between water consumption and water stress assessment. Ultimately, she provided inspiring examples of how water consumption and reduction targets resulting from LCAs can be used to engage customers and stakeholders if communicated properly.
Then Catherine Benoit, Director of Social Assessments and Strategy for New Earth, took the workshop into the social sustainability space. She discussed the use of a social hotspots database, first comprehensive Social LCA data source, which can be used in Sima Pro and is being tested in GaBi. These social LCAs produce a quantifiable footprint of issues such as worker hours, labor rights and decent work, human rights, health and safety, governance, and community.
Giving us an academic approach was Elsa Olivetti, a Research Scientist at MIT in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who provided an overview of LCAs from a technical standpoint. To add value, LCAs need to be a cost-effective, complex assessment of rapidly evolving products. Her work focuses on two linchpins of this process: developing rigorous methods for screening and data prioritization and examining what exactly the user needs to provide. In this way, LCA software and programs can better match settings and features to what matters.
Terry Swack, founder & CEO of Sustainable Minds, discussed her firm’s vision for streamlining the disclosure of product transparency information through Environmental Product Declaration (EDP). She described creating a step change innovation in the Product Category Rules (PCR) and EDPs process to simplify, standardize and harmonize product transparency reporting. This movement is making LCA-style analysis faster, scalable, cost efficient and user-friendly. Ultimately, however, she stressed that the focus needs to remain on firms to design greener products and market greener products. The PCR is a means to an end. Better-designed tools make the complex clear, but the onus remains on engaged practitioners to build space for continual improvement based on learning and engagement.
Finally, Susan Murphy, Service Delivery Director for PE International, described the latest in emerging software, from Tally to GaBi DfX, and scoped other hotspot analysis tools.
The resulting discussion with the workshop attendees ranged from panelist-specific questions to more fundamental questions on standardization of measurements and reporting. Several attendees posed the integral concern: How easily manipulated or misrepresented are LCA results? Particularly in such a vast and evolving field, without uniform best practices, our panelists were pressed for examples of cherrypicking. Swack and Murphy responded by clarifying the roles of EDPs and PCRs in the general conversation, and Murphy mentioned that they aren’t completely aligned yet, but “we are moving in that direction.”
Also discussed was gathering information from downstream sources, and best practices for how to engage clients in the process.