Although few ordinary consumers are familiar with it, LCA is at the center of a battle among manufacturers, retailers and conservationists over how to measure and express a product’s overall environmental impact. Emerging rules governing LCA will help policymakers decide which products are eco-friendly and which companies are engaged in “greenwashing” (the marketing of a product as environmentally friendly when, in fact, it’s no better than any of its competitors). And future government efforts to push businesses toward sustainability will be based on LCA.
For a conscientious consumer, it’s useful to know how LCA works as well as how it can be abused.
The first step is to select what analysts call a functional unit. “You have to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples,” says Michael Lepech, a Stanford University professor studying ways to improve the sustainability of engineering processes.
It might be hard, for example, to compare a hybrid sedan and a pickup. “Hybrids and trucks don’t always do the same things: If you’re a commuter, you’re concerned with passenger miles — the environmental impact of the car for every mile you and your family travel in it; if you’re a business owner, you might be more interested in cubic-feet-of-cargo-space miles.”
The next step will be to set boundaries on your analysis.
Classic life-cycle analyses are done on a “cradle-to-grave” basis, in which the analyst considers the environmental impacts of extracting and gathering the raw materials, assembling the product, transporting it to its user, and the disposal or recycling of it at the end of its useful life.
In some cases, however, an analyst might not want that much information. If a car manufacturer has ordered the analysis to find areas where it can improve its resource or energy consumption, it wouldn’t be interested in how much energy the steel company uses or what happens to the car after it breaks down.
This “gate-to-gate” reckoning is fine for internal purposes, but if made public, it’s one way an entity could massage LCA results to its benefit — by excluding some of the more environmentally toxic aspects of a product’s impact.
That sort of thing used to be relatively common. Today, however, the International Organization for Standardization (known as ISO, for its French name) has a set of rules that govern life-cycle analysis. To get ISO certification, an analysis must be cradle-to-grave, and the resources, processes and calculations included in the analysis must go through a peer-review process conducted by disinterested third parties.