At the heart of eco-design, Lifecycle Analysis allows us to assess, beyond the carbon footprint, all the potential environmental impacts of a system – product, good or service – throughout its existence.
From the extraction of the raw materials necessary for its design to its end-of-life treatment, what we produce and consume can indeed have serious consequences on the environment, as well as on our health.
By establishing an exhaustive assessment of the material flows associated with each of these stages, LCA makes it possible to identify critical points and improve the environmental performance of the system, with equal or better service. This standardized method thus makes it possible to combine ecological, social and economic requirements.
The 2 fundamental principles of LCA
Life Cycle Assessment is based on a systemic approach of the life cycle: extraction of raw materials, sale, use, transport, elimination… it takes into account the entire life cycle of the product or service. It requires a multi-criteria approach that quantifies, at each of these stages, all the incoming flows (raw materials, water, energy) and outgoing flows (emissions into the air, water or soil, waste production, etc.) in order to measure their impacts.
When a building is insulated, for example, energy consumption is reduced. However, insulation involves the use of materials, energy and transportation. Thinking in terms of “life cycle” allows us to determine which solution will have the least impact, while maintaining or even improving the product’s functions.
Standardization: ISO 14040-44 standards are the basis for LCA. They allow for the harmonization of the methodologies used and the evaluation of environmental impacts in relation to reference values.
How to perform a Life Cycle Assessment?
LCA is an iterative process (each phase can lead to a review of the previous ones) made up of four main steps:
- Definition of the objectives and scope of the study: define the system studied, the performance characteristics, the objectives, the boundaries (processes to be included or not), the assumptions of the study and the functional unit around which the analysis will be structured.
As a reminder, the functional unit is the unit of reference used to quantify and compare the performance of the service provided by a product or service to the user. For example, the expression of the functional unit of a light bulb could be: providing 40 W of lighting over 1,000 hours. Defining this unit according to the objectives is necessary to make the LCA results operational and relevant.
- Data inventory (LCI): identify all incoming and outgoing flows related to the chosen functional unit.
- Impact assessment: translate the identified flows into potential impacts using environmental impact indicators (greenhouse gas emissions, soil acidification, water eutrophication, natural resource depletion, land use).
- Interpretation of the results: analyze the results obtained according to the objectives defined in step 1 in order to identify opportunities for improvement in the framework of eco-design.
A critical review is generally carried out at the end of the analysis: it allows to verify the coherence of the methods in relation to the standards in force, the scientific validity of the methodology, the choice of appropriate data, the interpretation of the results in relation to the objectives and limits set and the transparency of the study.
Reducing impact through LCA: the examples of Nestlé and Apple
The use of Life Cycle Assessment has enabled food giant Nestlé to reduce its environmental footprint by lightening the packaging of its chocolate products, for example. In this way, the amount of material, energy and water needed to manufacture them was reduced, as was the weight of the products to be transported and the volume of waste disposed of by consumers.
The method has also allowed Apple to reduce the impact of its products by recycling electronic components, for example. Raw materials such as gold, cobalt or rare earths, extracted from recycled devices, are then reintroduced into the production process.
LCA is applicable to all industrial sectors: among car manufacturers, it has encouraged the use of lighter materials and the improvement of vehicle aerodynamics in order to reduce fuel consumption. In the construction sector, the evaluation of the energy consumption of “thermal flats” has led environmental policies to encourage the insulation of energy-intensive buildings.
The benefits of using LCA in eco-design
In the framework of eco-design, Life Cycle Assessment is a key element:
- An aid to decision-making: LCA allows to objectively evaluate the potential impacts generated by a system, to identify certain elements whose contribution in terms of impacts is major, offers a global vision and thus guides the choices of actions.
- Allows to distinguish oneself from the competition : it allows to innovate and to follow the progress of the competition. But also to improve its brand image and its employer brand, when it is integrated into a corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach.
- Allows to reduce costs: it favors the reduction of resources consumption, the reduction of transport and waste, etc.
- Improves the quality of the product: it allows to meet environmental regulations and contributes to extend the life of products and services. In the context of web eco-design, for example, the analysis has enabled the creation of modular sites that can be modified rather than perished: instead of eliminating and replacing them, it is possible to make them evolve.
- Increases customer satisfaction: LCA allows us to offer eco-designed products that meet the requirements of consumers who are increasingly concerned about the environment.
Limitations and challenges of Life Cycle Assessment
LCA requires expertise and in-depth knowledge of the analysis methods and tools, making it sometimes difficult to interpret the results. Furthermore, data are sometimes difficult to obtain or incomplete (energy sources and raw materials used throughout the process, etc.), which can compromise the validity of the results. The Life Cycle Assessment does not allow for the prioritization of the different impacts either.
It is therefore essential to define a relevant functional unit and to refer to ISO standards that define the requirements and propose guidelines. Precise data can also be obtained from manufacturers or from specific databases such as INIES, the French environmental and health national reference database for manufacturers. Where these are lacking, estimates by experts, for example, can be relied upon. In any case, training in LCA is almost essential.
Emerging trends in LCA
While Life Cycle Assessment mainly uses midpoint or “problematic” impact indicators (in the middle of the causal chain), it is increasingly integrating the consideration of endpoints, or potential damage impact indicators (at the end of the chain).
For example, soil acidification (midpoint) or air pollution are assessed: to improve the relevance of the analysis, it is useful to also measure the consequences of this acidification on biodiversity (endpoint) or of the pollution on human health.
Social aspects (working conditions in factories or impact on local communities) and economic aspects (production costs, profits, etc.) can also be included in the analysis.
Life Cycle Assessment, a tool for eco-design and CSR
The Life Cycle Assessment allows to integrate environmental considerations from the first phases of design of a product or service and throughout its existence. It allows the identification of critical points and the comparison of different alternatives for improvement. It is an inseparable tool of eco-design.
However, the current methodological model must be completed by other criteria, such as social and economic aspects or damage to health and the environment, to enable a system to be designed in a truly sustainable and responsible manner.
By considering into account all environmental, economic and social aspects, LCA has its place in a CSR approach.