Is Life-Cycle Assessment the Holy Grail?

April 11, 2007

By Deborah Dunning

Assessing the Value
The possibility we're exploring here is that of "sustainability purchasing." This entails a progressive policy of acquiring building products from manufacturers that generate positive social and environmental outcomes which can result in sizable cost savings.

Sustainability purchasing carefully integrates economic, environmental, and corporate social responsibility factors into specification and procurement processes. It exceeds what Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) achieves by evaluating all phases of a product's exchanges with the environment, using Life-Cycle Costing (LCC) and Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools. LCC and LCA bring added value to the owner, the architect, the engineer, the facility manager, and the people who work in the building.

What are the possible benefits? First, you'll be creating opportunities for reducing the costs of building construction, maintenance, and operations, which could result in a savings of millions of dollars. Second, you'll be developing ways to reduce the environmental impacts of your building activities and to communicate these achievements to all of your stakeholders. Third, you'll be contributing to the health and productivity of building tenants - and, as a result, be improving tenant retention and increasing leasing rates.

If you've accepted the value of LCC and LCA, let's move on to master the core language and the tool definitions so you can use them to contribute to streamlining your work.

Learning the Language
First, let's clear up the prevalent confusion between Life-Cycle Costing and Life-Cycle Assessment. To put it simply, the first measures costs and the second measures environmental impacts. While we're going to focus on LCA and related tools, let's take a minute to define LCC so that we're able to distinguish this tool and its uses from LCA.

Life-Cycle Costing features an integration of first costs (purchase costs) with reduced operating costs achieved through specification of Environmentally Preferable Products. It is an effective tool for seeing the extent to which selection of a given product type or brand product results in a strong return on investment. It is particularly useful when you're recommending a product that you're convinced will enhance the footprint of a building with a higher initial cost than a comparable conventional product.

Life-Cycle Assessment is a methodology first developed in the 1960s that gained broad acceptance in the 1990s when the standard for how product LCAs would be developed and used was set by the Intl. Standards Organization (ISO) - the world's leading developer of international standards which specify the requirements for state-of-the-art products, materials, and processes.

ISO standards level the playing field by making transparent the requirements that products must meet on world markets as well as the conformity assessment mechanisms for checking that those products measure up to the standards set. ISO's Standard 14044 for LCA defines what data is to be collected - its scope, boundaries, and units. It also defines how that data is to be analyzed and presented so as to create a level playing field for all participating manufacturers and to ensure a fair basis for product evaluation.

Defining the Tools
What are Product Criteria Rules? They are created to tell the people developing product LCAs for a given industry what types of data they need to collect (and in what units). They serve as the roadmap for developing a product LCA and ensure that all manufacturers in a given industry collect comparable data. To put it simply, Product Criteria Rules ensure that building designers, developers, and facility managers will have access to product LCAs based on a level playing field, allowing you to compare "apples to apples."

What is a Sustainable Product Standard? A Sustainable Product Standard provides criteria for achieving sustainability for any product, including benchmarks for conventional products. It also defines how materials are selected, how manufacturing processes are handled, what level of chemical emissions is tolerable, what usage of water is allowed, and how wastes are prevented. Put simply, a Sustainable Product Standard outlines what an ideal product of a given type will look like.

Sustainable Product Standards communicate how a manufacturer is designing, developing, and reusing its products. They are often adopted by government end-users as requirements to be met during the product specification and procurement processes. For example, the State Architect's Office in California has developed a Gold Standard for carpet, which a product must meet to be purchased for use in a public school building in that state.

What is a Product Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)? The Product LCA provides a science-based measurement of a product's environmental impacts throughout its life-cycle - from raw-materials sourcing through manufacture, shipping, use, and re-use or end-of-product-life phases. While the Product Standard entails big-picture directives, the LCA provides detailed documentation of all the relevant data on a specific-brand product. To develop a Product LCA, the manufacturer collects cradle-to-cradle data measuring in mass weight all of the raw or processed materials, all of the manufacturing and finishing processes, the packaging, the use, and end-of-product-life disposal activities.

To reduce the cost and time burden of creating a Product LCA, manufacturers use one of a number of software programs, most of which provide industry-average data on the cradle-to-gate and gate-to-cradle phases of a product's development. This enables the manufacturer to focus on gathering data on what takes place within the gates of their manufacturing facility.

Points are usually granted in a Sustainable Product Standard for achieving one or more of the following:

  1. Completing an ISO-compliant Product LCA.
  2. Using a Product LCA for modeling during product design.
  3. Communicating the results of a Product LCA in the form of public certifications.

Is Life-Cycle Assessment the Holy Grail?
Back to my initial question: Is Life-Cycle Assessment the Holy Grail? I think not, yet I believe that LCA is an invaluable tool that will help ensure progress in creating the Global Product Information System we all need. This system will feature common language and common metrics to be used in designing products sustainably, communicating their environmental attributes carefully, and selecting products knowing how they will affect the health and well-being of all of the earth's living systems. Sustainability purchasing will move us forward toward a sustaining future.

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