We’ve kicked off a new research project looking at the market for life cycle assessment services. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is going to have a major impact on the world of sustainability in the coming years. LCA involves looking in a holistic way at a system that produces products or services through all stages of its life cycle, from acquiring raw materials to manufacturing to use and recycling or disposal.
Why are we looking at LCA? Our most recent study of senior sustainability executives revealed the growing importance of life cycle assessment to the sustainability movement. A number of the executives cited LCA as the cornerstone of their sustainability programs. Others were at work on simplified LCA-lite measures, which they felt would be more accessible to smaller companies that may not have the resources to conduct full LCAs. A prominent executive at one well known company I spoke with suggested that there is a need for greater research and information on LCAs for the use of business executives who are responsible for their companies’ sustainability programs.
Life cycle assessment is about 50 years old. Initially, it was developed in response to concerns about uncertain access to resources, including energy. In its early years LCA tended to be employed in industries that handled scarce, toxic and/or regulated materials or (and I’m speculating a big because I haven’t fully researched it yet), where margins were low and the benefits from material stewardship are high.
LCA is a highly technical discipline and its practitioners tend to be highly trained and with advanced degrees. Executives with technical responsibilities, such as process engineers and manufacturing heads, are ones who traditionally have commissioned made use of LCA studies.
Today, the application of LCA is beginning to change, making this an excellent time to do fresh business-oriented research in this area. First, interest in the topic is spreading beyond technical management at companies, reaching strategy and even marketing functions. Marketers are interested in LCA for its potential in supporting ecological product claims. And sustainability minded executives generally are interested because LCA provides a structured way to understand a company’s environmental impact. (That’s what I mean by “Life Cycle Assessment for Suits.”) Interest in LCA is spreading not just within companies but across industries. We now have apparel makers and consumer packaged goods makers investing in LCA.
Our research will be conducted over the next 5-6 weeks. If you have expertise in LCA–as a practitioner, a tool vendor or a user of LCA services (such as a sustainability executive)– and would like to have input to our research, please leave a comment. I’m also happy to hear from anyone else with thoughts on the topic as well.