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LCA: Allowing fair comparison?

Environmental claims are often met with criticism from competitors and consumer organisations. This is not without good reason: in the last couple of years, many firms have been accused of Greenwashing activities. Driven by societal concerns, there is a general trend towards green marketing and eco-labelling as a possible solution to avoid unsubstantiated claims about “environmentally friendly” products.

Various initiatives – such as an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) and the EU’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) – aim to tackle these concerns through the development of methodologies that allow standardized communication about the environmental performance of products and organisations. Many environmental assessment methodologies are based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which is considered a recognized instrument integrated around the world.

Applications of LCA

The results of an LCA allow analysis and comparison of the environmental impacts of different life cycle stages – from extraction of raw materials to production, transport, use, and end-of-life –, products and production processes. While doing LCA is not a goal in itself, assessing and managing the life cycle of processes provides the opportunity to accelerate the transition towards sustainable consumption and production. LCA can be used to generate information which helps to prioritize decision making regarding sustainable development. Information from LCA can be used to support decision making in both public and private sectors and in eco-design criteria settings, for example in Green Public Procurement (GPP) and through the creation of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

However, LCA should not be applied without reservations. The results of an LCA study are often only used to communicate the environmental performance of a product or organisation. Therefore, it has to be kept in mind that the current use of LCA often excludes economic and social impacts, as well as the consideration of more local environmental issues. From a sustainability perspective – ideally covering a wide range of topics – it is wise to use LCA in conjunction with other tools, to identify also other areas of potential improvement.

Harmonization

In 2003, the European Commission concluded that Life Cycle Assessment provides the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products, but also addressed the need for more consistent data and LCA methodologies. Several initiatives for harmonization started to pop up, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development guidelines, which aim for consistent and credible assessment and communication of the environmental life cycle impact of products.

The EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) project – led by the European Commission – also aims at creating a standard LCA methodology and a set of rules for different product groups. After the (currently ongoing) pilot screening studies, in the next step of the pilot project, these results will be used for the development of the PEF Category Rules (PEFCR), which will become part of the European standard for LCAs. After the PEFCRs are defined, a discussion can start on labeling, followed by the (expected plans for) use in policy. In the future, PEF and ISO standards might interact to accelerate the use of one accepted set of standards and methodology, while the use of secondary databases is expected to become free of charge.

The future of LCA

Governmental and non-governmental organisations recognise the problems concerning the harmonization of LCA and its use for eco-labelling and are making great efforts to facilitate the development. It is plausible that eco-labelling and continuous establishment of instructions and regulations for LCA may drive the LCA debate for a while, improving both the quality and the credibility of the method.

Although this has yet to prove itself, it can be assumed that if LCAs are used correctly, following standards and guidelines, they can be a powerful tool. Using LCA effectively and efficiently results in the ability to operationalize transformative green marketing, which improves both the human condition and the natural system that surrounds and supports us.

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