Sonia Valdivia looks back at 8 1/2 years with the
Life Cycle Initiative

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Sonia Valdivia was always at the center of the Life Cycle Initiative’s activities.

Sonia Valdivia has has played a major role in the Life Cycle Initiative Secretariat for the past 8 1/2 years, with a goal of mainstreaming life cycle approaches worldwide. She recently accepted a new post at the World Resources Forum, and before leaving, accepted to take some time to look back and share her experiences during her long and active tenure. The full text of the interview follows below.

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How long have you been with the Life Cycle Initiative?

I’ve been here for 8 ½ years.

You have certainly left your personal stamp on the initiative, guiding it, or clearly deeply involved over those years.

I would not say guiding since there’s a team, a structure and the governance aspects, so we really respect and follow guidance from different sides including UNEP senior management, the ILCB, from flagship chairs. So I wouldn’t say guiding, but certainly deeply involved. Also in reconciling the different demands and requests from the various sides, trying to understand the different perspectives and what would best fit. You could also say I was pushing for the public good, which may be a little bit of an economic term, but essentially trying to achieve something that has an impact.

Can you give me some impressions of what the initiative was like 8 ½ years ago? Can you remember back to those early days?

At the time, the topics were much more based on the methodologies, closer to ISO 14040, focusing on technical aspects. It was less about mainstreaming and capacity building. Over time, the community has grown, and there is a lot of awareness raising and capacity building happening. And now there’s also a lot more information and focus for the general public.

The audience was more on the technical and practitioner side. Also at the time there was very little developing country participation. For example, you could not find practitioners in China, Indonesia or in Turkey.

That’s a lot of change in 8 ½ years.

Yes, and I’m very happy that during those years we have witnessed this growth.

Can we say that there is a region that has advanced more than others?

There are countries in Asia, for example, China and Thailand that have greatly advanced and there are also other countries in Asia that have not advanced as quickly, so one cannot speak about regions. One could say that the rapidly growing economies have advanced a lot.

So one can generalize that it is a precondition that the economy needs to develop in order for advancements to be made?

Yes. And it’s not only the BRIC countries, but also more generally the rapidly growing economies, such as, Thailand, Chile, Turkey, Malaysia, and hopefully we will start seeing things move quickly in India.

For the people who will be picking up on your work after your departure, what is your advice as to which country to focus efforts on? Which countries have the most potential?

What has worked very well and without a large amount of resources is really to help create a critical mass in each country. The critical mass is not about thousands of people, but key organizations and persons who are working in this area. A critical mass would include someone from academia that brings the knowledge and experience of the technical side…someone from government, for example the Ministry of environment, that understands that this would help them enormously…someone from Cleaner Production Centres or the consultancy side because they understand the market and know how to sell this and what local companies want. Maybe a leading company or a few leading companies who can lead by example. The normalization or standardization body in each country – they are the ISO focal points, so they validate and support these methodologies… and the chambers of commerce who are the entry to the private sector. So if you have the critical mass and you help them – UNEP can help them because it has the visibility, it has the outreach – then it flies. That was the case in several places.

UNEP and donors put resources toward facilitating the process of bringing them together. The countries themselves may not see that all these pieces are in place, but looking from the outside one can sometimes better see that the potential is there and just needs to be brought together, in order to help them to recognize the roles that they can play. It’s not always the same actors that are the strongest ones or the critical ones. It varies. Some countries have cleaner production centers that are very advanced. However, in another country they’re not interested yet, but it is the Chamber of Commerce or the best in university in that country that is leading in life cycle thinking. And then they are bringing the ministries to the table. In Turkey, it is the Ministry of industry that is taking the lead. It takes a champion, and around the champion the critical mass will form.

Have you got a personal project that you would like those who will be continuing to work to follow up on?

I would say China. We met the key persons in China around one year after I joined the initiative, and then we had the LCA awards. This award used to provide LCA tools (software) free of charge to good proposals received from the regions onLCA studies, life cycle inventories – it was very open. We once received a proposal from China on doing few LCA datasets. It seemed at the time to be too much, but this is what they wanted. After one year we asked for the report and what they provided was amazing. They had started developing databases for the country. They won the LCA award and now there is a national database available and they’ve started to create software, so this is an outstanding growth. Now they would like to help other countries and show them how to generate regional data and generate regional results. It has been very impressive.

What was one of the most important things that you learned during your time at the initiative?

You can never take for granted about the differences between cultures. It’s about building trust and these things take time. This is why UNEP/SETAC has been slow at times – because we respect the others perspectives and we have to take this into consideration, and not assume that our partners are aiming at the same thing or have the same expectations as we have. It’s about working together in a very diverse environment. But once we’ve acknowledged this and are able to create the trust needed, things move ahead slowly, consistently and sustainably. It was about learning about how to how to work with many organizations and people around the world.

Can you give me an example that illustrates this point?

One thing I remember: once I went to India and I was discussing over dinner with some colleagues before doing my presentation about the lifecycle approach, and I was trying to explain that the lifecycle is about different stages of products from cradle-to-grave. And I thought this idea was clear and obvious. Then somebody told me that ‘you can’t say that in India. In India we don’t believe in graves because we believe about being reborn and reincarnation here.’ So I realized that I needed to change my language and approach – you need to adapt to how things are interpreted in different places. So now I only say from cradle to gate, or from gate to gate and I avoid saying cradle-to-grave. At least I didn’t say this in front of 100 people it during my presentation but only during a dinner with the conference organizers. What are your hopes for the initiative to achieve as its moves forward in your absence?This is a shared hope. When life cycle thinking is being mainstreamed in society, I think that the initiative is being rewarded. And it’s not just one person achieving things for the initiative but it’s a shared achievement.

So, for example, having a country like Sri Lanka or Vietnam approach the Initiative and say “Hello, I invite you to join us at the launch of a life cycle initiative in our country.” This would be something to celebrate. On the other hand seeing signals from the market that show that finally we are having an impact by creating green jobs and more demand for LCA tools and services – the demand acknowledges our work. So from both sides: one is being everywhere because the others are able to create the needed critical mass to move it forward and second, seeing market demand signaling that our work has been a success.

What will you miss in particular?

I will miss the very inspiring discussions that I am used to having at meetings. Discussing on life cycle-related topics. I really enjoyed that very much. And the friends with whom I was exchanging on these topics, because they still belong to the most knowledgeable group of persons; really professional people who have a long history and who are very well known for their work and their publications. I personally did not see them only as scientists but as thinkers, as creators, and as innovators who were always trying to advance new ideas, such that when you look back, you understand that they were at the forefront. And they were showing the way, the path forward on these advanced topics. It was very inspiring and challenging as well. On the emotional side, they also became friends overtime, so I will miss this as well.

Looking back, if you could start over again, is there something that you would do differently this time?

Yes. There is one thing I may have done differently. From the very start I would have tried to focus more strategically on what can really bring the work of the initiative forward, or bring more visibility to the initiative, and that is communications. I have realized only after four or five years that without communication, especially considering the global outreach and the work at the initiative was doing, it is not possible. And we missed this. Sometimes we are only focused on the audience that needs the methodologies, needs the technical outcomes, but not on the broader audience that might be the potential users of the results, not necessarily the experts. So I think the communication should have been put at the right places and more prominence right from the very beginning. Of course that needs more resources, and some may say we didn’t have enough at the time, but maybe we could have convinced others to invest in this area. This is one thing that I think upon reflection would have increased visibility in the initiative. Communication is very important.

And it’s not only one-way communication but also two-way communication. Not just spreading the word, but also getting feedback on success of communications and how the content is being taken up is also very important.

How do you foresee staying involved in the Initiative’s work in the future?

A nice thing about the Initiative is that there always possibilities to get engaged. Even without being engaged you see people and communities starting to implement lifecycle thinking so, in one way or the other, as long as you I am consistent with this core aim, I will not be far. It’s like when a child leaves its family – I take the learnings with me. At the moment I feel like I can participate in some areas like hotspots analysis methodologies, and possibly also on the communications part. In my new post, I might be involved more and apply my skills and knowledge on Social LCA. This would not be the core topic of my new job, but I will apply it because it will compliment my activities.

Over 8 ½ years, there are a lot of gatherings and meetings with colleagues. Was there a funny story that you can recall from during these times?

There many things that were funny, but in particular there was one evening when the ILCB members were dancing together to the village people song, but instead of the YMCA, they were dancing the YLCA.

Another nice experience was during the global Shonan guidance principles workshop to develop the LCA databases guidance document, people that are so well-known, so busy and interested to learn we were behaving like students. We were working again like we were in university on homework and doing our tasks in the evening to be able to present them the next day. So it was like being back in the university days as students but with people that are senior professors. That was very nice.

Is there anything you want to say on a personal level?

I would like to say thank you very much to the ILCB members and the project management office chairs because they really helped me, helped the Secretariat and still continue to help UNEP to implement this noble ideal. And everything we have is because they helped with their in-kind contribution and time I really hope that the movement grows, the community grows, a big thank you to everybody! Also thanks to the life cycle networks and the software providers. They were also really helping us a lot. Thank you to the team members in the flagship activities. It was incredible how much people provide their trust, commitment, patience and understanding to the work. Even though I will miss my colleagues and their company, I am looking forward to this new challenge at the World Resources Forum and to starting a new phase of my career. In future you can contact me at sonia.valdivia (at) worldresourcesforum.org