Product sustainability: An easy guide to life cycle assessment

With energy and raw material costs are high and rising, understanding the environmental impact of a product is proving to be an important tool for manufacturers. Brite Green associate consultant Michael Hill explains how using product footprinting can reduce costs, risk and environmental impacts at the same time in his easy guide to product assessment.

Product sustainability: An easy guide to life cycle assessment

With energy and raw material costs are high and rising, understanding the environmental impact of a product is proving to be an important tool for manufacturers. Brite Green associate consultant Michael Hill explains how using product footprinting can reduce costs, risk and environmental impacts at the same time in his easy guide to product assessment.

Why would you want to do a product footprint?

The fundamental premise of all product footprints is to assess environmental impacts across some or all of a product’s life cycle. At first glance you’d be forgiven for asking where the business benefit lies in doing such an assessment, but manufacturers like Kingsmill and LINPAC Allibert are demonstrating that having this information provides a valuable insight into new ways to improve business performance. A product footprint can identify new ways to reduce cost, risk and wastage in your operations, and can help you to gain competitive advantage by demonstrating your green credentials to your customers as they seek to reduce their own environmental impacts through their supply chains.

What is product footprinting?

Product footprinting is a generic term covering assessments of various types of environmental impacts. Each type can cover different stages of the supply chain and have varying breadth and depth of study. Selecting the right type of assessment is important and it depends on a company’s business requirements, budget and how the results will be used.

We’ll look at the types of assessments and how they suit different business needs.

Product carbon footprinting and Life Cycle Assessment

Product carbon footprinting (PCF) has received the most attention in the past decade due to the prominence of global warming from carbon emissions as the major environmental issue of our time. This is in effect a “single-issue” Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) focussed on calculating the carbon emissions from a product’s supply chain and therefore the global warming potential (GWP). Usually PCF will assess emissions either from source of raw materials to when the final product leaves the factory gate (business to business or B2B) or from source to use by the consumer and end of life disposal (business to consumer or B2C). The main drawback with PCF and its focus on carbon is that there is potential for environmental “burden shift” as measures taken to reduce carbon may have unintended and unidentified negative effects on other environmental impact areas.

This is where LCA comes to the fore as this covers a wider range of environmental impact areas including the impact of carbon emissions. These traditionally are acidification, eutrophication, ozone depletion, eco and human toxicity, resource use and depletion, waste production and water usage.

How to set the scope for a product assessment

In order to judge the scope of a study a business must decide on which environmental impact areas are of most concern and therefore decide on PCF or LCA and how far they wish to assess the supply chain, i.e. B2B or B2C. This might relate to a materiality study which identifies which environmental issues are most important to your company, or could be driven by requests from customers.

The next decision is the breadth and depth of the study. Many companies start with a scoping study which explores the likely impact areas, the availability of data across the supply chain and what would be involved in a more detailed study.

Following a scoping study, most companies undertake a high level or “streamlined” footprint of LCA which typically uses primary or original data from the area of operation of the company and secondary or industry data for areas of the supply chain outside of its control.

Where more rigour is needed, a full footprint should be undertaken. You would collect primary data across the whole supply chain wherever possible and only use secondary data where gaps exist. This type of study would usually be conducted to footprinting and LCA standards such as PAS2050, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Product Standard, ISO 14067 and ISO14040.

How long does an LCA take to complete?

Scoping studies can be completed in several weeks and will require collection of company data supplemented by industry data. Streamlined studies take typically three months and full studies anything from six to 12 months dependent on the extent of the supply chain and the availability of primary data. The costs involved are commensurate with the time taken. Many companies prefer a staged approach with a logical progression from scope to streamlined to full study building on the previous work.

For communication and marketing purposes scoping and streamlined studies are usually confined to in-house reporting whereas full studies can be placed in the public domain after the results have been verified by an independent accredited body.

Need to make a robust statement? Use an Environmental Product Declaration.

For many companies the next logical step is use the results of a full LCA study to produce an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). These are based on structured frameworks called Product Category Rules (PCR) which ensure that the environmental impacts of different products are reported on the same basis (scope and boundaries, functional unit, consistent life cycle stages, agreed use phase activities, and allocation of impacts across different processes). EPDs have the advantage of reporting a range of environmental impact areas (as detailed above) along with energy usage and resource requirements.

For a consumer, procurer and specifier this means that that environmental performance of different products can be compared on a fair and equal basis. Increasingly EPD are being used in the construction sector and this is has been reinforced by the introduction of EN15084:2012 Sustainability of Construction Works, Core Rules for the Product Category of Construction Products.

Although many footprints, LCAs and EPDs are instigated due to supply chain pressures to improve sustainability performance there are significant resource efficiency and cost savings to be made.  A number of case studies have demonstrated this in recent years.

Product assessment in action: case studies

Kingsmill Bread has reduced the carbon footprint of its loaves by a number of improvement measures including upgrades to more energy efficient baking plants producing 20% carbon emissions savings, reduction in transport impacts with lower emission vehicles, more local production and switch to some rail distribution.

LINPAC Allibert (which manufacturers plastic crates for a supermarket distribution chain) were able to demonstrate through the use of a carbon footprint that only 20 trips were required to be less carbon impactful than single-use cardboard boxes. Comparable cost saving are claimed after only 12 trips and with a service life of 92 trips on average for each crate significant cost and carbon savings can be made. This has underpinned the environmental and cost credentials of LINPAC Allibert’s new rental crate business model.

About Michael Hill

Michael Hill is a highly experienced project manager and sustainability consultant across several industry sectors. He has primarily been involved in product carbon footprinting and life cycle assessment (LCA) since 2008 and has managed projects and provided consultancy services for a number of high profile clients in the health, pharmaceutical, professional services, manufacturing, timber and food and beverage sectors.

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