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How O-LCA Can Identify Your Organization’s Most Effective Ways of Reducing Environmental Impact

Organizations seeking to reduce their environmental impact typically implement a range of different actions. They may focus on reducing emissions from employee commuting by encouraging carpooling, cycling, or (depending on pandemic conditions) use of public transportation or working from home. Some organizations pursue waste reduction, through actions like using bulk coffee instead of coffee pods, encouraging use of durable water bottles and mugs, or implementing/improving office recycling.  Another common focus is reduced energy consumption, through energy-efficient light bulbs, smart power strips, or power-saving functions on computer monitors and other electronics. Many readers will likely relate to some of these efforts.

While well-intentioned, these actions may not be effective in cutting the organization’s overall environmental impact. Implementing energy-saving measures in offices can reduce that portion of the company’s power consumption, but the effect may be tiny in the totality of its operations. Other efforts may actually lead to greater environmental damage depending on subsequent changes in behavior – the so-called “rebound effect." Carpooling or biking to work, for example, often reduces carbon emissions with few unintended consequences, but savings on fuel costs can lead to more or faster driving. Or, if coffee stirrers are eliminated from an office without an alternative, employees might use plastic spoons instead, thus increasing their plastic use. Implementing organizational change on any scale, small or large, requires careful thought to maximize the environmental benefits arising from such efforts. 

Rather than arbitrarily selecting and pursuing isolated actions for perceived environmental benefit, it makes sense to first gain an understanding of the organization’s overall impact. By way of comparison, if a company wanted to reduce its spending, an obvious first step would be to examine its finances to identify where money is going, rather than proposing arbitrary changes, like purchasing cheaper napkins. This approach is also effective for environmental stewardship: organizations can be more effective in their efforts if they evaluate the impacts of the organization as a whole and then go about making changes in a strategic way. But how can a company quantify which actions will have the most impact?  

Fortunately, there’s a useful tool for addressing this issue: organizational life cycle assessment (O-LCA).  An O-LCA, as defined by ISO/TS 14072 (ISO, 2014c), “is a compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and potential environmental impacts of the activities associated with the organization adopting a life cycle perspective” (Guidance on Organizational Life Cycle Assessment, 2015).  An O-LCA is effective for quantifying the average inputs and outputs necessary for an organization’s operation and enabling the calculation of the type and amount of environmental impact at each stage of operation.  

This information allows identification of specific supply chain and operational areas that produce the largest share of the company’s total impact, which in turn allows for well-targeted and measurable impact reduction from those specific processes. Result: the organization can focus its efforts on changes that have the largest overall impact. O-LCA can also help identify low-hanging fruit where small changes or investments will produce large environmental benefits. 
Bar chart of EarthShift Global impacts

Figure 1: Breakdown of EarthShift Global's organizational impacts using ReCiPe 2016 midpoint.

As an example, EarthShift Global collaborated last year with a group of university students who conducted an O-LCA on our company. The results showed clearly that travel was our biggest contributor to environmental damage (the period under review was prior to the Covid-19 pandemic). This can be seen in Figure 1, where the orange portion of the bars represents the percentage of airplane travel’s contribution to each of the impact categories. Car travel contribution is shown in gray. These results validate our policies of conducting meetings via teleconference whenever possible, prioritizing use of buses and trains, and seeking direct flights when we have to fly. They also suggest that when we update our study we should include employee commuting in our results. (The pandemic’s impact will, of course, affect all these metrics.)

On the flip side, the O-LCA found that our work for clients reduces impacts on a much larger scale than the damage we do. One example: a few solar projects have been permitted in part because of our greenhouse gas accounting efforts, and the lifetime benefits of those projects alone vastly outweighed our organization’s negative impacts (see figure 2). 

EarthShift Global's positive impacts outweigh the negative impacts

Figure 2: The benefits of a few of our projects far outweigh the damage from our air travel.

Being able to show that sort of quantifiable impact can help companies on many levels. Customers are increasingly demanding companies act to identify and reduce their environmental impacts, and a completed O-LCA is a clear demonstration the company has taken constructive initiative. 

Companies with multiple product lines can leverage O-LCA to identify which ones have the largest potential for change. In addition, having a baseline impact level makes it easy to assess the effects of future sustainability-oriented changes. The bottom line is that O-LCA allows a company to make impactful changes and document them with quantitative metrics.

A further benefit of completing an O-LCA is improved employee engagement and satisfaction. Many employees today want to feel like they and their company are making a genuine difference in the world. With an O-LCA in hand, the true impacts of any environmentally minded initiatives can be quantified, which can improve employee morale. We witnessed that firsthand, when our EarthShift Global team first saw the documentation of how our client work has reduced impacts in so many areas.  

Sustainability initiatives can also enhance the internal sense of community, and allow creation of challenges, tasks, and company-wide activities where employees can team up in pursuit of reducing environmental impact. For example, an organization could promote a challenge of biking to work for a month, and quantifiably show the reduction in GHG emissions for that month. This sense of purpose is a beneficial addition to the atmosphere of any organization.

In conclusion, O-LCA is an effective tool for any organization that is working toward sustainability goals. The development process creates invaluable, previously unavailable information about the types and amounts of an organization’s environmental impact and identifies the sources of those impacts. This allows for a range of targeted follow-up actions for significant and strategically sound reduction. 

Following these changes, the organization will then be able to quantify its impact reduction against the baseline level, which is useful in proving to customers and investors the organization’s commitment to sustainable initiatives, and satisfying the desire of employees to work for a company that makes a “real” environmental difference.  

About the Authors:

Alexa Kaminski is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire School of EngineeringAlexa Kaminski is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire with an undergraduate degree in Environmental Engineering.  At UNH, she gained experience with life cycle assessment (LCA) procedures, as well as analytical chemistry methods. She is now a graduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology, pursuing an MS in Sustainable Systems and working on a thesis assessing the impacts of controlled-environment agriculture.

 ValValentina Prado, PhD., is a Senior Analyst at EarthShift Globalentina Prado is a senior sustainability analyst for EarthShift Global, and a visiting professor on the management faculty of Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. She has extensive expertise in developing decision-analysis tools for life cycle assessments (LCA), and hands-on experience in the Sustainable Return on Investment (S-ROI) assessment methodology. 

Valentina holds a BSc with honors in Civil Engineering from Jackson State University, and an MSc and PhD from Arizona State University in Life Cycle Assessment and Decision Analysis.