One big concern among the sustainability practitioners we work with is the resource-intensive nature of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), both during data collection and actual conduct of the study. If an LCA has a very narrow focus (e.g., only applies to one of many products or applications), the cost-benefit ratio can be an issue. Fortunately, if we get a chance to look at the goal and scope and ask a few questions, we can often pinpoint two or three sensitivity studies that greatly expand the study’s applicability.
Here’s an example which we do for nearly every study we consider: a sensitivity analysis with 100 percent wind or solar power. While any specific grid is unlikely to have 100 percent renewable sources, doing the analysis provides a “best case” electricity scenario. That in turn shows how the impacts will change if the process is moved from, say, China or the US to Europe, or if the grid gets cleaner over time. (Another option is to consider 100% coal, to show the inverse.) If the conclusions of your study don’t change significantly under this scenario, you can be confident of your results over a much broader geographic and temporal horizon.
Figure 1 shows this scenario analysis for HP Inc.’s prototyping 3D printing process. Any of HP’s customers who are already using 100% renewable power can see the impacts on their processing and HP can see how impact by volume will change in the future.
Another useful strategy is to look at impacts across a product line. For example, if use-phase energy has the highest impact, you can estimate the scope of results by considering the study objectives for the highest and lowest energy-using products in the line. Again, if the conclusions don’t change much (e.g., the use phase is still the highest impact, our product is still better than the competition), they can now be extended to the full product line.
Allocation is another area where value can be maximized by adopting several perspectives. While economic allocation provides a good look at what is happening today, mass-based allocation provides a stable benchmark that’s useful should the product under study turn into a co-product rather than the reason for production. While this always seems unlikely, there are real life examples: whey, which used to be waste from cheese production, has become an important and sometimes determining product on its own. Other allocation methods provide other insights into how impacts may change as markets evolve over time.
If you’re interested in applying this type of thinking to get the most out of your LCA, we can work with you on an hourly basis and provide more insights for a reasonable fee. Helping corporate practitioners and other consultants get more bang for their LCA buck is one of our favorite things, so please reach out!
About the Author: Lise Laurin, CEO and Founder of EarthShift Global
Lise is a pioneer in Sustainability Return on Investment (S-ROI) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). She continues to develop and leverage sustainability consulting services, LCA as well as SROI software and training programs to build organizational capacity in driving large-scale change. Her unique skill set and knowledge base has put her in demand globally by companies, organizations and governments alike.
Email Lise if you’re interested in a sustainability speaker for your next event.