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How Using Life Cycle Assessment Is Like Trying to Eat Healthy


EarthShift, LCABy Dave Hartter, Senior Sustainability Analyst

Last month, my wife and I took a quick trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. Lucky for us, we flew JetBlue. Every JetBlue traveler looks forward to the free snacks and DirectTV, and I am no exception.

When the flight attendant came around with the snack options, I quickly glanced at the choices and settled on a mini-bag of popcorn chips, presuming it was the healthiest option. I also snacked on my wife’s animal crackers.

I wondered to myself, had I chosen the healthier option, or had my wife?

I flipped the packages over, and there I found calories, cholesterol, sodium, fat and other nutritional categories listed. If one snack was better in all categories (higher in vitamins and minerals, lower in fat, sugar and salt), the healthier choice would have been obvious. However, in this particular instance, the popcorn chips snack was better in some nutritional categories, while the animal crackers were better in others.

How, then, does the consumer make the healthier choice? The answer most likely depends onLCA, Life Cycle Assessment the individual. Someone with diabetes may choose an option with less sugar, while someone with high blood pressure may be more concerned with salt content. For those concerned with their personal health, the nutrition label enables them to make an informed decision based on trade-offs to best suit their individual interests.

The same holds true for a company reviewing the results of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Companies often face trade-offs when evaluating the environmental impacts of a product. Whereas a nutritional label reports calories, fat content, and the like, LCA reports deal in climate change impacts, acidification, ozone depletion, and so on.

Whether the choice is paper or plastic, disposable or reusable, or petroleum-based or bio-based, there are often trade-offs (See “Using LCA To Grade Starbucks: Sustainable Innovation or Greenwashing?"). To some, it can be frustrating when there is no option that is the clear environmental winner. However, the copious amount of information an LCA provides should be viewed as a benefit, not a detriment.

Rather than causing “analysis paralysis,” LCAs offer an exceedingly valuable input into a company’s environmental decision-making process.

By determining the environmental impacts in multiple impact categories, companies are able to understand the environmental trade-offs inherent in their product decisions. Life Cycle Assessment enables companies to make value judgments to reduce the environmental impacts that matter to their shareholders, employees, consumers and the communities where they manufacture their products.

A company manufacturing in an area prone to drought is likely to value water conservation (See “Water Footprinting Class Helps Companies Stay on Cutting Edge"), while a company operating near a polluted watershed should value reducing eutrophication impacts. While companies (and consumers) should work to reduce their impacts in all environmental impact categories, a value judgment is often required to determine how to address the various environmental impact categories and choose between options, particularly when trade-offs exist.

Just as a single health indicator can’t apply to all consumers, a single environmental indicator won’t apply to all companies. Each company sells different products, manufactures in different geographies and markets to different people. This is not to say that companies shouldn’t develop their own single environmental indicator, but it should be based on their internal value system that they use to make important decisions.

So next time you are on a plane or at the store, would you want to see a nutritional label that only had one category? Could you really make the decision that was best for you with such limited information? You should expect the same when trying to understand your company’s environmental impacts.

Like what you've read?


That was a really good analogy man! LCA results should be judged for each specific site. In the case the consumer is healthy, than shall try to reduce all categories or not? Thanks
Posted @ Monday, February 25, 2013 3:48 PM by Diego Medeiros
Great article, Dave. If LCA could help to create a product label--similar to the 'Nutrition Facts' information--to help consumers make better decisions, what information would be included in that label?
Posted @ Wednesday, February 27, 2013 10:45 AM by Joel
Good analogy! i like this article since most people can probably relate to nutrition. To respond to Joel, I think if product labels at least had carbon footprint and recycled content information on them, that would be very helpful for consumers. As someone in the aluminum industry, we know that most people do not realize the carbon savings from recycling aluminum - it saves 95% of energy and GHG emissions compared to using virgin aluminum, and the average can is made with 44% recycled content (more than any other beverage container!). See for more info. We are a big supporter of LCA at my company for our sustainability program.
Posted @ Wednesday, February 27, 2013 1:04 PM by Brooke
It does make a good business case for product labelling, EPDs and hence LCA. This is likely to be the trend, going forward. But we also need to keep in mind that big retailers like Tesco, have given up on this idea after spending quite a lot of effort, time & money on labelling Tesco branded products, just because they found that they were running the race all alone! 
My feeling is that unless there are legislations that mandate product Eco labelling just like food labelling, we are not going to see much movement in this space.
Posted @ Sunday, March 03, 2013 7:48 AM by Sukhdev
I like your text much, would like to state "good analogy" but in fact i think there is a big problem with using LCA only to get a "fixed enviormenatal score card". The strenght of an LCA is in my opinion in the G&S delimiation, where only included relevant processes are compared. Once you start comparing diffrent LCAs, like in creating a set of env. scores on the back of a package, the strength of an LCA as a optimizing tool with concisten G&S is severly weakend and the results shoud be questioned, at least in terms of (transperancy, representativity and uncertainty. Today carbon footprint is the only impcat category that comest closest to possible application in such metaanlysis (comparing deiffrent LCAs, but also this should be questioned in my opinion...but maybe in the future, its a nice vision to communicate to non LCA practitioners at least;)
Posted @ Monday, March 04, 2013 1:36 AM by Andreas Emanuelsson
Thank you everyone for the comments. In regards to product labeling, I am not necessarily making the case for environmental product labeling. I think there isn't a "one size fits all" single environmental indicator that applies to all companies and the decisions they must make when evaluating their products' environmental impacts. Companies should make internal decisions based on their specific value systems and choose the relevant environmental indicators accordingly. We work with our clients to create environmental metrics that makes sense for their stakeholders and allow employees to compare environmental impacts. In some cases, a single environmental indicator may be the best solution for internal decisions, but this is different for each company.
Posted @ Friday, March 08, 2013 7:20 PM by Dave
"Last month, my wife and I took a quick trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. Lucky for us, we flew JetBlue. Every JetBlue traveler looks forward to the free snacks and DirectTV, and I am no exception" 
- now of course i do agree with what you just said and i am loving to understand it further. 
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Posted @ Saturday, December 21, 2013 11:59 PM by Melanie
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