A Quick Guide on: Life Cycle Assessment.
Discussing the purpose of Life Cycle Assessment and why it is an important method to support sustainability claims. Following the recent conversations I had with Salem and Flavio on the
Discussing the purpose of Life Cycle Assessment and why it is an important method to support sustainability claims.
Following the recent conversations I had with Salem and Flavio on the Decora Edit Podcast, I’ve decided to learn more about Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and share here a small guide for this methodology. Having a background in fashion design, learning about materials and garments is such an appealing process to me, however, getting to know more about LCA, thoroughly changed my approach when looking at a product. Materials and construction is such a small part of what it takes to make a product but, there’s so much more to it. Learning about the impact of each small step involved in producing something is a fundamental piece of information. LCA is a complex methodology, however it is such a brilliant system, and yet not much recognition has been given to it, especially within the fashion industry.
Bold sustainability claims are a daily occurrence, and most often are lacking of any objectively measurable foundation. Comprehensive and clear data, should instead, replace those appealing and misleading marketing techniques, and guide us through any purchase decision.
In recent years, more companies are starting to promote LCA of their products. As an example, Levi’s shared a full report for their 501s jeans, however there are currently no regulations in place that oblige brands to share this information with their consumers.
In a nutshell, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be defined as a scientific analysis process, used to assess the environmental impact across all stages of a commercial product life-cycle. It is a methodology peer-to-peer reviewed, and used by producers, designers and engineers to investigate how actions affect the planet, to guide decision-making aimed to implement those actions as well as design better products.
Most often an LCA is done by experts. Due to the complexity of the dataset, it is a process which involves ‘breaking down all the inputs that go into making something exist and looking at the outputs that occur as a result.’ and then measure the findings against potential risks for the ecosystem’s health.
Life Cycle Assessment has been introduced in the 60s to look at packaging alternatives but, only in the 90s got its scientific recognition, when drink and beverage big players needed to have a better understanding of their product’s impact. Initially, the study was only focused on energy analysis but, later extended to resources, emissions and waste. The growth of scientific interest in the methodology, led the development of a common theoretical framework: International standard ISO 14040, which lays the fundaments for the good practices on which any LCA is based on.
To better understand a LCA, let’s break down its foundations:
First things first, the LCA methodology is all about functional units: “The functional unit of a product system is a quantified description of the performance requirements that the product system fulfils. In a comparative study, the functional unit has to be the same for all the compared product systems”
Taking as example the Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of denim and t-shirt, two high-volume fast fashion and cotton-based products, the functional unit used for the comparison is the production of 1 piece of each piece of clothing.
The Five Stages of a LCA
The study starts from the initial phase of raw material extraction (first stage). Every product is made using materials, and to have a full insight on what is necessary to manufacture a specific product, it is important to go back to examine the source.
Taking as example the production process of cotton, this stage would include any step into growing the cultivation of cotton plants. From water footprint to pesticides used.
The second stage is the manufacturing process, and that involves the procedure of transforming raw resources into commercially usable material: from cotton plant to textiles and usable products. The impact of this process is measured accounting for energy used, water consumption, chemical used.
The distribution phase (third stage), assesses the emissions produced as a direct effect of moving goods around. For instance, dispatching garments to warehouses, stores and ultimately, to consumers.
Good usage (fourth stage) at the consumer level, it is also analysed. Actions such as washing, drying and ironing, but it might also include maintenance.
Lastly, product disposal (fifth stage), which includes any end-of-life procedure: from recycling to landfill.
The quantitative information provided by critically analysing phases of production and use of a product, are part of the Lifecycle Thinking, which is the idea of ‘going beyond the traditional focus on production site and manufacturing processes to include environmental, social and economic impacts of a product over its entire life cycle.’
The lack of transparency within the fashion industry, and other fields too, is a major and complex limitation which significantly impacts the progress in finding more sustainable solutions. The positive impacts of transparency could provide great benefits also to methodologies like LCA as ‘collaboration and communication between LCA practitioners and subject-matter experts, modellers, information technology practitioners, decision makers, and funders ‘.
Identifying ways to encourage people to collect, store and translate data in a format easily sharable with others, will represent the turning point to accelerate the effectiveness of such methodologies, and introduce thoughtfully designed products.
words and visual by Giulia Mummolo
Disruptive Design (Leyla Acaroglu)
Consequential Life Cycle Assessment ()
Institute of Environmental Sciences, The Nethelands (Jeroen B. Guinée)