How to understand sustainability through lifecycle assessment

greenwashing

Recently, everywhere you look – online or in the supermarket – the majority of products are promoted as eco-friendly, organic, natural, planet friendly, green or sustainable. And since we, as consumers, are starting to acknowledge that our everyday purchases impact the planet, we like to make the ‘easy swap’ to a product that seems to be less harmful to the environment. But can saving the planet really be as easy as spending an extra 20p on a “green” product? Or is this price premium perhaps, yet another marketing trick brands use to ensure you stay loyal to them? Can you realistically establish if a product is green or not without digging deeper and looking at its lifecycle assessment?

Finding truly sustainable solutions requires a little more effort. Consumers are now learning to educate themselves on what sustainability really is, and how it’s measured to navigate the sea of green-washing to enable them to buy products that are designed to have less environmental impact from the start.

So how do you know if a product or service truly is sustainable?

Across markets, there are different certifications that help steer consumers to make the right choice. Some of those include Green Seal certification, Cradle to Cradle certification or the Safer Choice label to name a few. But what if you want to go a step further and see for yourself what really makes some products better for the planet than others?

That’s when you look at an LCA – a Lifecycle Assessment (also known as Life Cycle Analysis) .

Now, not every company or product will publish an LCA. Not every company will even have done a lifecycle assessment. But if you ever get a chance to see and read one, you’ll understand how much thought goes into creating a sustainable solution (it’s not just a case of swapping ingredient A for a slightly less harmful ingredient B…).

But what is an LCA and why doesn’t every company have one?

A lifecycle assessment is a report that analyses the impact a product or service has on the planet. It’s a result of hundreds of hours of data collection summarised by categorising the final outcome into impact categories (some common ones include climate change, land use, water scarcity, and ozone depletion).

Every product will go through five key stages in its life cycle – raw material extraction, manufacturing process, distribution, consumer use, and disposal or recycling. Each of these stages will have a different impact on the environment. LCA analyses each of those stages carefully to assess how big the impact is, which is the first step for a forward-thinking organisation to determine whether or not it could be minimised further.

goal of a lifecycle assessment

How is the product’s environmental footprint calculated?

lifecycle assessment inputs and outputs

Each stage of the product lifecycle (raw material extraction, manufacturing process, distribution, consumer use and disposal / recycling) will have its own inputs and outputs. The inputs are usually energy, water (or other scarce natural resource) and raw materials.

For example, in the manufacturing of ELeather we use energy and water along with our key raw material – waste leather offcuts diverted from landfill. (Find out more about how ELeather is made here)

The outputs, on the other hand, depending on the stage, will be a useable product, along with things like airborne emissions, solid waste streams, and other non-productive ‘wastes’.

Each of those inputs and outputs is quantifiable (it can be put into numbers) and can be calculated with the help of complicated scientific models (and clever people who understand them!).

Who needs an LCA?

Not every company will have an LCA. Analysing a product from its raw material origin to its inevitable end of life, is a time-consuming and arduous process. For this reason, it’s usually carried out by a specialist agency and it’s not cheap.

This means that many brands will carry out their own, scaled-down calculations to substantiate their “green” credentials instead.

But those companies who value and are really committed to the cause will invest in a lifecycle assessment for a number of reasons:

  • To help lower the environmental footprint of each new product being developed, and to help guide the continuous improvement journey (this could be streamlining manufacturing processes, and also looking at supply chain and whether sourcing a different supplier could reduce the impact).
  • To help communicate the environmental claims with consumers and other businesses in a meaningful way (i.e. no more greenwashing). More than 81% of consumers believe that companies have the responsibility to help improve the environment (source)!
  • To make a strategic decision that will ensure the company has a long-term positive impact on the planet.
  • To prove they comply with regulations.)
who needs a lifecycle assessment

What if an LCA is not available?

If you’re looking for a business solution – like looking for a supplier of sustainable materials – speak to your account manager or the sales person about whether or not they have an LCA. Here, at ELeather, we’re happy to share ours with customers who like to dig a little deeper into our products’ environmental footprint.

But if an LCA is not available, most companies will have either a sustainability page or FAQ on their website with specific claims and information.

Secondly, ask what sustainability certifications the company has. We are proud to have a Recycled Claim Standard certificate for several products from Textile Exchange and a Higg certificate by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, as well as being ISO14001 certified.

So if you’re a consumer or a ‘purchaser’ of any description, do your research on the companies and products you’re looking to purchase before buying, to check they’ve done theirs. Don’t just rely on the buzzwords printed on product packaging or snazzy marketing; as they say in Latin, ‘Caveat Emptor!’ or in English: ‘Buyer Beware!’