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Two Steps Forward

Tom Gloria and the life-cycle of LCA

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.”

Makower: This field of life-cycle analysis has been around a long time. You don’t hear much about it these days unless you’re specifically engaged with product design. Has LCA risen and fallen in waves or has it been one steady clip for the past 10 or 20 years?

Gloria: It definitely has gone in waves. One of the biggest challenges for the field is finding a balance — the level of effort it takes to do life-cycle assessment work and the value you get out of it.

Going way back, there were some huge aha moments when Environmental Defense Fund, working with McDonald’s, realized that the clamshell [polystyrene foam hamburger containers] had impact, but the solutions weren’t all that great either. Then we moved into the ‘90s, where the metals industry and the big automotive sector industries were looking at life-cycle assessment, and there was a blossoming of LCA by other big companies like Proctor & Gamble and BASF.

But through the turn of the millennium, where there was a downturn in the economy, the method itself had gotten very complex. You had to have a PhD to understand what was going on and how to use LCA methods and models and data. The toolsets weren’t quite developed and there wasn’t a real market understanding of what to do with the information that came out of LCAs.

That said, in the middle of the first decade, in 2005-2006, as the waves of sustainability started to kick up from Al Gore and climate change and LEED ratings, there seemed to be a wind of, “Well, if we’re going to start making environmental claims across all industries we need a science-based method to do so.” So, in the second half of that decade there was this awareness of LCA as a quantitative, science-based tool to assess true impact so that we’re not trading one problem for another, or making a false marketing claim.

More recently, there has been a growth in companies wanting to produce environmental product declarations, essentially an environmental specification of a product that uses LCA. This latest wave has been driven by that.

Makower: I hear a lot of terms being bandied about. There’s life-cycle analysis, life-cycle assessment, life-cycle inventory, life-cycle management, life-cycle thinking. I’ve even heard about “LCA lite.” Are these basically all talking about the same thing or are they different?

Gloria: There’s still a bit of confusion in the market. Over the last couple years there has been a growing consensus that when one does a formal life-cycle assessment, it’s a streamlined LCA. At its most complex is something called a “comparative assertion,” when one compares one’s product to a competitor’s product that makes that claim in the public domain.

So there is a growing consensus on that terminology, but you still need to check with someone as to what they mean when they’re asking for a life-cycle assessment. That is one of the first steps of doing an LCA work: What’s your goal and scope? That helps to more concretely define, “This is what it’s going to take” — the level of data and analysis that’s needed.

Makower: What is driving LCA these days? Is it customer expectations — and, if so, is it B2B or B2C companies? Is it a more internal need by companies to understand how to improve the footprint of their products?

Gloria: I see a couple of main drivers. There’s internal improvement, which really has a longer-term driver of risk management, and making sure that we’re not doing something for which we could be found liable. Basically risk management and reputational risk, as well as any sort of legal risk.

Market differentiation is the other primary driver in LCA. Environmental product declarations are continuing to drive the use of LCA and internal capacity-building around LCA.

Makower: One of the challenges I’ve often heard is that conducting an LCA takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Is that changing?

Gloria: It’s definitely changing. The sophistication of folks inside companies is growing. In many cases, you’ll have environmental professionals out of undergraduate and graduate programs who have had some level of LCA training. So you’re working with a new crop of professionals that are hitting the ground running. They know how to leverage the various tools that are out there and the methods that are out there that are growing, as well as companies have a variety of enterprise-level tools of data that’s being collected for more traditional environmental performance as well as supply-chain management-type information.

So the nexus of people, capital and technology capital that’s growing within companies is making it a lot easier. That said, the area that is still difficult and challenging is access to data — data that is outside one’s company, and particularly outside the direct influence of one’s supply chain, but still a major influence to the product.

A secondary issue is that LCA methodology is still in development. There are new and more sophisticated manners of measuring a variety of different impacts — not just global climate change, but toxicity and impacts associated with water and water stress. And understanding the new and the best methods for measuring impact is a large hurdle for companies.

Makower: So, tell me what you’re going to be doing at your three-hour workshop at GreenBiz Forum.

Gloria: The workshop will be very practical. It’s geared towards folks who are interested in learning how LCA applies in a business setting. You may be looking to do the LCA work yourself, or looking to hire a consultant to do the work. You may be someone responding to customer requests, where your customer is asking for life-cycle assessment information. And so it will be an overview of LCA.

Then we’ll have an exercise that will allow you to get your hands dirty, to understand the mechanisms of LCA and take away a lot of the mystery in how to do LCA work.

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