Towards a global life-cycle economy?

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This article is part of our special report Products for a greener planet.

Assessing the environmental impact of products throughout their whole lifecycle – from raw material extraction to transport, consumption and final disposal – is being touted as the new mantra in environmental policymaking and sustainable business decision-making.

Background

International standard

Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an international-standard methodology (ISO 14040:2006) that "helps to quantify the environmental pressures related to goods and services (products), the environmental benefits, the trade-offs and areas for achieving improvements taking into account the full life-cycle of the product". 

The standard is accompanied by a Life-Cycle Inventory (LCI) and Life-Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA). LCI relates to the collection and analysis of environmental data, such as air or water pollution, resulting from raw materials extraction and the production, transport, use, reuse, waste management, recycling and final disposal of the product. 

LCIA is an "estimation of indicators of the environmental pressures" associated with a product's lifecycle in terms of climate change, resource depletion and human health, for example. 

LCA starts with Life-Cycle Thinking (LCT), or the understanding that the environmental impact of the entire lifecycle of products and services needs to be addressed. 

EU policies

Amid concerns that growing resource scarcity and rising raw material costs are dampening prospects for economic growth in Europe, the EU is looking for ways of decreasing the environmental impact of industrial activity, product manufacture and consumption patterns along with improved social performance and sustained economic profitability. 

The European Commission first embraced life-cycle thinking in its Green Paper on Integrated Product Policy (IPP) in 2001, followed by a Communication on IPP in 2003.

Other examples of existing life-cycle related EU policies and instruments include the 2005 Thematic Strategies on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste and on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, as well as the 2008 Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan.

Specific instruments to implement these policies include EU regulations on an Eco-label and an Eco-management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), EU waste directives, a directive on Eco-design for Energy-using Products (EuP) and an initiative on Green Public Procurement

Issues

Reliable, cost-efficient LCA to support decision-making

While International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) standards on Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) already exist, there is no commonly accepted guidance to complement them and ensure consistent life-cycle data or robust assessments. 

Reliable, cost-efficient LCA to support decision-making

While International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) standards on Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) already exist, there is no commonly accepted guidance to complement them and ensure consistent life-cycle data or robust assessments. 

Many different Life-Cycle Inventory (LCI) databases and Life-Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) methods exist both in Europe and throughout the world. Databases are run by industry associations, for example, but there are also other thematic databases and policy-driven national and international collections of data. 

Furthermore, current practice is characterised by a number of proprietary LCA software tools and databases that work with incompatible formats (see the EU Joint Research Centre's (JRC) list of the existing databasestoolsservices and providers worldwide).

Meanwhile, reliable and consistent data sets and assessments are necessary for use in a policymaking context and to provide decision-makers with reliable support - both in the public and private sectors - on issues like eco-labels, carbon footprints or eco-design studies. 

Due to the lack of authoritative reference databases in Europe on quality and consistency, and the lack of reviews and industry support, the European Commission's in-house research facility, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), began in 2005 to develop such indicators and compile a common EU database.

EU guidance, database underway

The JRC's Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) is leading the European Platform on Life-Cycle Assessment, which aims to improve the credibility, acceptance and practice of LCA by business and public authorities, by providing reference data and recommending methods for LCA studies. 

The platform will provide detailed technical guidance for developing ISO standards on LCA to provide a common basis for consistent and quality-assured life-cycle data and robust studies. 

By 2011, the JRC will develop:

  • A European Reference Life-Cycle Database (ELCD), providing LCI data from business associations and other sources on key materials, energy carriers, transport and waste management. The datasets are accessible free of charge. A draft guidance document for LCI datasets was published for consultation in June 2009.
  • An International Reference Life-Cycle Data System (ILCD) handbook of technical guidance documents for LCA. This is being developed via international consultation, and builds on the ISO standard. A series of draft documents on the matter were published for consultation in June 2009.
  • An ILCD Data Network, a web-based LCA information hub to facilitate knowledge exchange on consistent and quality-assured life-cycle (LC) data between businesses, governments, academia and consultancies worldwide.

Use of LCA by business and policymakers

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the life-cycle approach has several benefits for industry, governments and consumers. By integrating the life-cycle perspective into company management and production processes, businesses improve their environmental sustainability, occupational health and safety, and risk and quality management. A life-cycle approach to sustainability management can also improve a company's image and brand value and help to identify suppliers that act in accordance with company strategies.

Meanwhile, governmental initiatives secure and strengthen the position of the industrial and service sectors in regional and global markets and provide society with overall environmental benefits, balanced with economic and social aspects. 

UNEP further notes that a life-cycle approach enables product designers, service providers, government agents and individuals "to make choices for the longer term and with consideration of all environmental media," and avoids shifting problems from one life-cycle stage to another, from one geographical area to another or from one environmental medium to another, such as from air to water or land. 

The European Commission stresses that using LCA in decision-making can also improve the competitiveness of a company's products by improving product design and widening the choice of materials and technologies.

Changing consumer behaviour 

Life-cycle approaches are expected to help push consumption in a more sustainable direction by offering consumers better information. By making decisions based on analysing the cost, benefits and quality of a product, some consumers are already becoming more conscious of the effects their purchases have on the environment, social welfare and local economies. 

Two recently-launched industry initiatives in the EU are currently pooling expertise to reduce the environmental impact of the food and retail sectors, promote more sustainable products and better inform consumers about 'green' purchasing opportunities.

The European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) roundtable brings together all food-chain actors to develop coherent environmental assessment methodologies for products and means for effective consumer communication, while claiming to avoid 'greenwashing' (EURACTIV 07/05/09).  

The Commission welcomed the initiative, stressing that it is important "to assess individual products, to know at what stage of their lifecycle their biggest environmental pressure lies and compare products". 

Retailers' Environmental Action Plan (REAP) brings together retailers who wish to reduce the environmental footprint of what and how they - and their supply chain - sell and promote more sustainable products to consumers (EURACTIV 03/03/09). 

Limits

Back in 2003, the Commission published a study on the environmental impacts of various product groups and the monetarisation of these impacts. 

The report stressed that the study of environmental impacts was limited both by the lack of available data about all the categories under consideration and the temporal, geographical and technological representativeness of the data. It also noted that, as in LCA studies in general, uncertainties about toxicity and ecotoxicity "are likely to be high". 

As for calculating the external cost, the EU executive noted that there are uncertainties directly linked to the monetarisation methods themselves and "some limits occur when combining results from monetarisation and LCA, in particular potential global impacts (LCA) with actual location and source-specific external cost factors (monetarisation)".

The JRC notes that "frequent errors" regarding comparison of products or product systems include exaggeration of small or insignificant differences, drawing general conclusions and recommendations from specific case studies, and investing too much confidence in analysis based on uncertainties alone.  

Also, while LCA can be used to analyse comparable aspects of quantifiable systems, not every factor can be reduced to a number and inserted into a model. Furthermore, current LCAs generally neglect to take into account the social implications of products, and while transparency of data is generally good, real-world industry data may be unverifiable for confidentiality reasons.

UNEP has also noted another major impediment to life-cycle-based policies, the 'Stockholm Principle', which states that every country is responsible for its own resources, as long as it causes no harm to any other country. Life-cycle considerations could thus be regarded as "undue meddling in other countries' internal affairs". 

A related complication, according to UNEP, is a World Trade Organisation agreement forbidding discrimination on the basis of environmental information, especially when domestic production is favoured.

Demand for social and socio-economic assessment

While life-cycle assessment has until now mainly been used to analyse the environmental impacts of a product or a process and help companies identify which aspects of their production can be made more sustainable, it is also possible to assess the social and socio-economic impacts of a product's lifecycle. 

UNEP recently published guidelines for Social Life-Cycle Assessment of Products, which address the impact of production and consumption on workers, local communities where production takes place, and all other value chain actors. 

Criticism 

Just as the whole concept of 'sustainable development' has been criticised for being an "ideology" that allows wealthy industrialised countries to impose stricter conditions and rules on aid to developing countries, life-cycle analysis has also encountered some scepticism. One of the critiques of the concept is that is does not question the ideology of economic growth. Some therefore see it as a new "ideology of neo-liberalism".

Moving towards assessing sustainable development against whole life-cycle assessments of products or services, the methodologies of which are yet to be agreed, instead of taking action via existing carbon and water footprint measurements, for example, can also delay the adoption of more sustainable practices.

Positions

For individual stakeholder contributions to the JRC's general guidance  document for LCA, please click  here .

According to the European Commission, standardisation of the tools for sustainable management of products throughout their lifecycle is crucial as it provides a "common language" for activities within companies and cooperation between them: all the more so due to the increasingly global character of many environmental challenges. 

The Joint Reseach Centre's Institute for Environment and Sustainability  (IES) notes that finding the right balance between general and sector-specific LCA guidelines depends on their goal, scope, intended application and target audience. The same applies to finding the right balance between guidelines that are restrictive and provide robust decision-making support, and those that are more flexible and practical.

The IES also notes that over-interpretation of insignificant differences in comparative studies must be carefully avoided as the differences are not always clear enough to make one of the compared systems the "winner" or "loser". "Claiming equivalence of systems due to lack of significant differences is equally not permissible, it may only be stated that with the given data restrictions and uncertainties no significant differences could be identified," it adds. 

In parallel to EU initiatives on LCA, a joint programme from the United Nations Environment Programme  (UNEP) and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry  (SETAC), called the Life-Cycle Initiative, aims to enhance global consensus on LC methodology and data and build up capacity to apply life-cycle thinking to decisions by business and governments. 

UNEP  says that while it has seen progress worldwide with respect to the internalisation of life-cycle thinking in the policy development and activities of both government and business, "there is still an enormous gap between the levels of implementation in developing economies and industrialised countries".

According to UEAMPE, the European SME lobby, most small and medium-sized enterprises do not apply LCA or eco-design to their production processes, but welcome the idea of setting up EU level Life-Cycle Inventories and new databases with easily available life-cycle information, presuming that the information is free of charge. 

European Commission study on the level of awareness regarding life-cycle thinking in small European firms, retailers and consumer organisations revealed that awareness is rather poor and the groups lack the human and financial resources to buy, learn and apply LCA tools. 

The study also stressed that while an SME can be a producer or a supplier of either raw materials, semi-finished or final products, it is often active in the supply chain of products manufactured by large companies, which set the demand for product design and production. 

So with respect to life-cycle thinking, the Commission believes that the SMEs are dependent on the attitude and activities of larger companies. 

The European Confederation of Iron and Steel Industries (Eurofer) stresses that current LCA and LCI methodologies are not yet sufficiently developed to permit comparison of products or materials. It also notes that there is a need to "further develop other closely-linked methodologies like Life-Cycle Cost (LCC) and Life-Cycle Social Aspects (LCSA) in order to embrace sustainable development". 

Eurofer also has some doubts about the capacity of an EU data centre to provide all the information necessary to make advanced comparisons of complicated products in a correct and fair manner. It stresses that all comparisons of products must be made "on a like-for-like basis i.e. at the functional level and not at the individual product level". 

For example, regarding building construction, "comparison of products should look at the building as a whole since the use of one particular product will affect the design of the rest of the building, and hence its environmental performance (e.g. steel-framed construction can significantly reduce the mass of foundations required)". 

The Nickel Institute, representing the interests of nickel-producing companies worldwide, also notes that current LCAs mainly concentrate on the production stage of a product (from the cradle to gate), covering air and water emissions, energy consumption, waste and other environmental impacts from the production phase. 

It argues that the use phase is not investigated with such detail, while this is the part of the life cycle where, for example, metals provide "outstanding benefits" to the environment: alloying elements make stainless steel durable and prolong their life time and avoid their replacement after a few years; the platinum content in a catalyst neutralises hazardous off-gases, and; nickel, cadmium, cobalt or lead in accumulators and batteries allow the storage of energy. 

Furthermore, the Nickel Institute notes that the recycling of substances is not sufficiently taken into consideration in LCA. "Metals cannot be consumed as oil or gas. They are in principle available after they are used. Old vehicles, fridges, CD players - they all contain various metals, and their recycling saves energy, reduces air and water emissions, saves primary resources, and prevents waste. However these facts are not really covered," said Mark Mistry, the institute's director of EU sustainability. 

"The Dow Chemical Company has been involved and engaged with life cycle assessment (LCA) and the LCA community for over 20 years. More recently, driven by the Company's 2015 Sustainable Chemistry goal, the Dow LCA group has been working with its businesses, geographies and functions to complete a variety of LCA projects. This interaction has been accelerated by the recent global emphasis on sustainability, as more of Dow’s customers are requesting LCA-based information for Dow products. 

Dow points out how LCA can be used to demonstrate the value of chemical products – which in many cases can only be appreciated by taking into account the full life cycle.  To this end, Dow uses LCA in an attempt to fully understand the benefits (and tradeoffs) of new technology.

Dow notes that increased availability of LCA data and acceptance of impact assessment methods in important areas like water and biodiversity would help to make LCA even more widely valued and implemented.  Dow derives long term value from its LCA projects by using them to instil life cycle thinking within its businesses, and teaching Dow employees to think more holistically and more sustainably about Dow's products and strategies."

DuPont, a chemical company, stresses that it is integrating the LCA concept into all its business operations from the research and development phase to marketing. It notes that choices made early in R&D programmes often determine products' sustainability attributes, like reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Integrating sustainability principles into R&D enables innovative and competitive future technology options with quantifiable environmental benefits to be introduced to the marketplace, the company adds.

DuPont states that "significant uncertainties in evolving technologies, data gaps, and changes in the business and regulatory environment are all challenges in the effort to integrate LCA into general business practice". 

Monique Goyens, director-general  of European consumer organisation BEUC, said the primary responsibility for sustainable consumption and production lies on consumers themselves and their purchasing choices.

Meanwhile, Goyens said some marketing claims may be difficult to compare as, for example, a washing powder that allows laundry to be cleaned at 30 degrees may well use less energy, but "it also contains more active chemicals". Also, while a product can have very low CO2-intensity, it may have a heavy water footprint, she added. 

Timeline

  • 1996: First UNEP publication on 'LCA: What it is and how to do it'.
  • 1997First ISO standard on LCA.
  • 1997: Sustainable development included in the Treaty of Amsterdam as a fundamental objective of the EU.
  • 1997: European Environment Agency publishes guide to LCA.
  • 2001: EU launches first sustainable development strategy.
  • 2001: European Commission Green Paper on Integrated Product Policy (IPP).
  • 2002: World summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg.
  • 2002: Launch of the Life-Cycle Initiative by UNEP and Society of Environmental Chemistry and Toxicity. 
  • 2003: Commission study on the environmental impacts related to various product groups.
  • 2005: Launch of the European Platform on Life-Cycle Assessment.
  • July 2008: Commission adopts action plans on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) and Sustainable Industrial Policy (SIP), a Communication on Green Public Procurement and other related legislative initiatives. 
  • 2009: UNEP guidelines for Social Life-Cycle Assessment of Products.
  • 29 Sept.- 2 Oct. 2009: Joint North American life-cycle conference 'Towards the global life-cycle economy' [see programme and abstracts here].
  • 1-2 Feb. 2010: SETAC Europe 16th LCA Case Studies Symposium 'From simplified LCA to advanced LCA'.
  • 12 March 2010: JRC launched an ILCD Handbook.
  • 12-13 July 2010: EU environment ministers discuss Belgian EU Presidency initiative on Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) , which promotes a "cradle-to-cradle" approach to resource management in the manufacturing sector (EURACTIV 09/07/10).
  • By end of 2011: Framework assessment methodology for food and drink products (SCP platform) should be finalised. 
  • By 2011: EU expected to finalise a European Reference Life-Cycle Database (ELCD), an International Reference Life-Cycle Data System (ILCD), a Handbook of technical guidance documents for LCA and an ILCD Data Network.

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