Friday 23 March 2012

a green fling lesson : lca

Have you ever been shopping for shampoo and been faced with conflicting messages across the labels such as:
  • 100% natural
  • Degradable bottle
  • Organic ingredients
  • Non-toxic
  • Packaging made from recycled plastic
How do you know what’s the most eco-friendly choice?

I wish I could tell you the answer is easy, but it’s not. Not yet, anyway.

Every item we consume has a long environmental rap sheet, and it’s not all available on product packaging. This is where Life Cycle Assessment – or LCA – comes into play.  In the opinion of many environmentalists this represents the future of eco-purchasing across many areas.

Recently I sat down with my mate Ben Kneppers from Edge Environment to get the latest from the world of LCA. 

Can you explain to us non-engineers what LCA is?
LCA is a way of measuring the environmental footprint of a given product, service or system from cradle to grave. LCA takes a holistic approach, considering a range of the most critical environmental aspects of a product – including carbon, pollution, water, energy and materials – throughout its entire life as well as what happens at the end of its life, for example, can it be recycled? Will it biodegrade? Will it end up in a landfill or damaging ecosystems? Can it be upcycled into something else?
A number of products’ environmental claims at present only provide a small amount of information based only on carbon emissions or water use, and the aim of LCA is to provide the complete picture.
Why is it important for consumers to know about LCA?
A lot of consumers want to make environmentally-aware purchases, but unfortunately many of them may be greenwashed or simply give up because of a lack of information. Understanding that a product’s environmental footprint includes more than just carbon takes consumers in the right direction and allows them to make more informed decisions.
Consumers are increasingly aware of this, even if they wouldn’t call it LCA. Research shows that LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) consumer numbers are continuing to grow each year, and their number one complaint is confusion caused by eco-labelling.
So is the future of LCA eco-labelling?
Absolutely.  Green claims are easy to make, but harder to prove, and consumers are learning this.  Even the experts can get confused.  But having an independently verified ‘seal’ or ‘certification’ on a product that has taken into account the complete environmental cost can provide consumers peace of mind in their eco-purchases.
We’re seeing great work done in this area internationally at the moment, including with Walmart Chile.  Together with FundaciĆ³n Chile, Edge Environment has developed dozens of product category LCAs for food, beverages and detergents to support the suppliers and sustainability managers at Walmart Chile to focus on key environmental issues.  This work has been closely aligned with the Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System of The Sustainability Consortium, a global network of LCA and sustainability practitioners working to standardise eco-labelling.
What makes you excited about LCA?
I have an engineering degree, and with my ‘scientific-mind’ LCA just makes so much sense.  The hard data is something I can grasp and clearly see what we are doing wrong in terms of resource depletion and unsustainable growth.
And we’re just scratching the surface with what we know and what we can do with LCA. It can dramatically impact the way the world works. The work we’re doing with Walmart is just the tip of LCA iceberg.
Edge Environment was the perfect place for me to get into the field. They’re committed to using best practice scientific methods to pursue pioneering work that makes real change to the sustainability industry. Beyond LCA we consult on Climate Change Adaptation and sustainability strategies for organisations.

Thank you Ben!

Do you have any other burning environmental questions you'd like me to investigate for you? Drop me a line!

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