Environmental preservation takes more relevance as more collective consciousness arises. Our society is constantly trying to reduce the environmental impact throughout time with small changes in lifestyle, industrial processes, and business operations. To know the impact is getting reduced, a way to quantify it is essential. For this type of environmental impact measurements, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has been developed.
LCA - THE ESSENTIALS
LCA helps to assess the environmental impact of a product, process, or service throughout its entire life cycle. It is based on the calculation of the environmental emissions equivalent to the energy and materials used in the process, service, or product evaluated.
Surely you have seen many products at the supermarket with carbon emissions on the labels or numbers about how much CO2 the company stopped producing. This kind of marketing strategy is gaining more popularity as environmental preservation gets more important. But is it the whole truth for a sustainable product? Some companies might be inappropriately using this tool to ‘greenwash’ their products, services, or operations.
How is LCA methodology, then, related to sustainability? Some might think that it is obvious – environmental preservation makes part of the whole concept of sustainability. But, do you know why? It is all about equity.
Simply put, sustainability is composed of intergenerational, , intra-generational, and interspecies equity. The fact of something being sustainable can be defined as the ability to pass on the benefits of an action, to future generations, the same generation and other species inhabiting the impacted surroundings. An action that can lead to shared welfare between these groups, can be defined as sustainable. Nevertheless, to be able to pass on this welfare, the environment in which this occurs needs to be preserved. Therefore, the preservation of the environment is the key for sustainable development and long-lasting impact.
When you critically analyze what is behind the CO2 numbers displayed on a product, or presented by a company, you should think, is it fully sustainable? Our search should go beyond the CO2 numbers, low emissions do not translate into a fully sustainable operation, service, or product (Moltesen & Bjørn, 2018). At this point is where ‘greenwashing’ gets entangled, marketing strategies that rely on CO2 numbers claiming sustainability might be leaving key information on the side and hoping that it is not noticed.
LCA IS USEFUL – WHEN USED CAREFULLY
LCA analysis is really useful but should be used carefully. The numbers given on an LCA analysis are CO2 equivalents, meaning that the impact of the emissions, energy, and materials originally analyzed are “translated.” The truth behind this is that even if the emissions are from methane which has a greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, or some other more harmful compounds, LCA calculates how much CO2 is required to create the same negative impact on the environment. With this being said, the labels or claims from companies might be hiding or ignoring some crucial information.
Tools like LCA have advantages and disadvantages. Is a good methodology that may help us move towards a more sustainable society. However, remaining critical about the results makes the difference between greenwashed and truly sustainable products and services.
Moltesen, A., & Bjørn, A. (2018). LCA and Sustainability. In M. Z. Hauschild, R. K. Rosenbaum, & S. I. Olsen (Eds.), Life Cycle Assessment. Springer International Publishing AG.
Manuel Alejandro Ruiz Mejia
Master student of Biotechnology at Lund University. The author holds a Bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. Manuel is one of the Marketing Directors and was a former Consultant at 180 Degrees Consulting Lund.