Life-cycled assessments may be coming full-circle.
LCAs, as they’re known — a process of measuring the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life from raw materials to the end of its useful life — have been around for nearly a half-century. Interest in them has ebbed and flowed, based on concerns of the moment. Initially, they focused on solid waste. (LCAs were first done in 1969, when researchers conducted a study for Coca-Cola looking at different types of beverage containers to determine which were the least problematic, environmentally speaking.) Over time, their focus has increased alongside interest in energy, water, toxicity, and other issues.
Interest in LCAs seems to be undergoing a resurgence these days. The push is coming from the construction, consumer products, and other sectors, in large part reflecting the increased pressure by customers and stakeholders for manufacturers to measure, manage, and track the full impacts of their products and processes. That’s giving new life to LCAs.
To learn the latest, I turned to Tom Gloria, whose firm, Industrial Ecology Associates, has been conducting LCAs for nearly 20 years. Gloria has been a member of many of the key technical committees and advisory boards for professional and government entities engaged in the field. He’s also worked with a long list of companies, including Avery Dennison, Cargill, Chevron, Eileen Fisher, Herman Miller, Interface, Kraft Foods, Nike, Nestle Waters Rio Tinto, Sears, SC Johnson, Samsung, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He’s also taught this stuff at Harvard.
At our upcoming GreenBiz Forums in New York and San Francisco, Gloria will be conducting three-hour pre-event tutorials on LCAs. He strikes me as the right guy to do it: someone who’s steeped in the science and practice of LCAs, but who has a plain-folks way of talking about it to non-techy folks like me.
In the run-up to the events, I talked with Gloria about the state of the art of LCAs: who’s using them, why, and where the field is headed.
Joel Makower: How do you describe what you do to people you meet at a dinner party, or maybe even your own family?
Tom Gloria: I’ve definitely had this question before. The first thing I say to someone is I say “I’m a sustainability professional.” And they go, “Oh, what’s that?” And I say, “Well, sustainability is about community, and so I work with a variety of communities of people to help them make better decisions that truly make improvements. And that includes understanding the full life-cycle of something.”
Makower: So far, so good. What’s your favorite example?
Gloria: “I work with Levi Strauss. I help them to look at the full life-cycle impacts of making a pair of jeans.” I like to use that example because everyone knows what a pair of jeans is. “I help them to examine all the impacts in growing cotton and making that cotton into yarn and fabric and dyeing it. And then how you, the consumer, wear that product and take care of that product, and then what happens to it at end-of-life.”
Next page: Finding a balance