Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
Measuring the environmental impacts of products and processes
Sustainability Glossary - MU Sustainable Innovation
The LCA methodology is 30 years old, it is undoubtedly not a last-minute invention, however, nowadays it coming back on the forefront as companies, including textiles', want to measure the environmental impact of their products.
The LCA purpose is, in fact: to collect and evaluate data relating to emissions, consumption, and energy loads to express through synthetic values how much a product contributes to global warming on the planet. LCA can serve many goals: calculate the environmental footprint of a product or process, to mitigate it, measure the CO2 release to activate compensation initiatives, obtain EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) certification, a sort of paper environmental identity of a specific item or material.
As we will see below, a study using the LCA methodology requires a considerable effort in the collection and processing of data. However, every effort is rewarded, in this case, with data and measurements compliant to recognized international standards, that can support the company's sustainability statements without fear of being accused of greenwashing.
How is an LCA implemented? The first step is to set the objectives of the study; the next step is establishing the boundaries of the system under analysis. It means to list all the processes that will be evaluated in the LCA. Then the data relating to the history of the product are collected: for each phase, the inputs (materials, water, and energy) and the outputs (emissions) are identified. Calculation methods are then applied to quantify inflows and outflows. The calculation outcomes obtained provide several measures:
- the energy used (GER - Gross Energy Requirement);
- the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and the related (GWP - Global Warning Potential);
- the consumption of non-renewable resources;
- the contribution to the depletion of the ozone layer;
- the contribution to (acidification, eutrophication, photochemical smog formation, and, therefore, to toxicity on humans and the environment.
GWP represented by the CO₂ eq parameter is the most used indicator generated by an LCA. The value, in this case, carbon dioxide (CO₂) is used to summarize the greenhouse gases: methane CH4, nitrous oxide N2O, chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFC ).
Interpreting the data provided by the analysis is essential. It allows the company to compare materials and products in eco-design strategies, to evaluate the results obtained from the introduction of new technologies or organizational changes, to tell the environmental history of the product rigorously and scientifically.
Of course, the LCA does not provide all the answers, for example, it does not evaluate the social and economic cost of a product, but it indeed prevents it from slipping into the dangerous greenwashing and allows objective and documented assessments.
The PEF (Product Environmental Footprint) methodology introduced by the European Commission to assess the environmental impact of a product is also based on LCA principles. Like LCA, PEF adopts an approach that considers the entire life cycle of a product but follows specific requirements for each product category and standardized specifications that create greater comparability of results. Equally important is that PEF also considers the impact on the environment of a product's end of life, providing practical criteria and a formula for its evaluation.
A sibling method as PEF is the OEF (Organization Environmental Footprint) which, measures the impact of an organization on the environment, for example, a production site instead of a single product.