(Image above from Faludi et al. 206, DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12528 )
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a method that allows designers to assess the environmental impacts of their designs from launch to retirement (“the cradle to the grave”). Information gained can help designers to make more informed decisions through out their design process. The goal is to quantify the environmental impact of your product and compare different scenarios.
For example, here are very rough LCA graphs of typical products in four different product categories:
These graphs combine all of the different impact categories mentioned above, to show the biggest opportunities for improvement. For “large electrical” it is reducing energy use or switching to clean energy, and for “housewares and other” (such as furniture), it is choosing better materials and manufacturing methods, etc. However, sometimes the opportunity is not as clear. Notice that in the “often washed apparel” graph, energy and material impacts are similar; in this case, there are large uncertainties for knowing which impact is actually larger.
When to use
Life-cycle analysis should be used when the environmental impact of a product, material, or activity needs to be measured. It can be a helpful tool in making conscious decisions during the design process. Seeing what makes the biggest impact can help a design to rethinking parts of their process. LCA can also be used as a tool to compare products or prove they are up to government standards. LCA is used most commonly for internal decision-making and external reporting. With internal decision making, an LCA is best done early in the design process to identify the product’s most significant environmental impacts, as well as to establish a benchmark for further analysis; both are driving factors in guiding product development.With external reporting, LCA can be used to prove that a product has an environmental advantage over its competitors, or that it meets governmental or third-party standards.
A carbon footprint is a kind of LCA that only measures greenhouse gas emissions, but LCAs can quantify and compare many different types of environmental impacts, from carcinogens to land use to mineral depletion and more. The “ReCiPe” methodology measures eighteen impact categories and can graph them all on one scale for the whole life-cycle of your product. The “eco-cost” methodology measures twelve impact categories and graphs them all as financial costs to society (in €). This helps you determine your priorities for green design.
Some of the benefits of doing an LCA are (but not limited to);
- quantifying the environmental impact of a product
- reducing costs
- improving the environmental performance of a product
- identifing the whole environmental picture, beyond the product “use” phase
- comparing alternative
- making a product more marketable
- reducing overall environmental impact
- recognizing inefficient or significant changes in the phases of the life cycle
Limitations / Risks
- Can be time-consuming.
- Can be complicated / difficult to gather precise data and model, though analyses with low precision / high uncertainty can be fast and easy.
Sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu provides an overview of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as part of a strategic sustainability workflow in product design and engineering. (Attribution: Autodesk)