After 20 years of existence, it is a perfect moment to first, take stock of the achievements of the Life Cycle Initiative and second, to look ahead as to how the Initiative and the life cycle community can improve the application of the knowledge and tools to speed up the transition to sustainable consumption and production patterns using circular approaches without unintended trade-offs. Our guest speakers covered both topics during two interactive panel discussions, with 240 attendees from all over the world.
How it started, where we need to go
Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel: When I joined UNEP in 1986, it was a small organisation of 200 people. We started with cleaner production, quickly transitioned to cleaner production and sustainable consumption. New management tools and technologies were necessary to look at the environmental impacts of the whole life cycle of a product, resulting in the launch of the Initiative 20 years ago. Now everyone is speaking of the life cycle, and it makes me proud to see what the initiative has achieved. (Click on the visual for Jacqueline’s 4-minute statement)
Llorenc Mila I Canals: We need life cycle approaches to inform science-based policies, which will speed up the transition towards sustainable consumption and production. The Initiative offers businesses globally recognized tools, approaches, and data, enabling them to minimise the environmental impact during the life cycle of their products. And we need civil society to help us improve life cycle approaches by sharing knowledge and contributing to new tools, methods and global consensus for future-proof businesses and the well-being of people and planet. (Click on the visual for a 6-minute teaser with some of our guest speakers).
SUMMARY PANEL 1
Jim Fava: Life cycle thinking is now embedded into policy making and environmental improvements globally, which is a great achievement of the Initiative and its community. In the 90s, SETAC efforts established the science and technology of what LCA is. Both the ISO standard and supply people developed methods and databases, like GLAD. We also developed product and sector specific guidelines, which is since 2017 used in the foundational country hotspot analyses. The demand for LCA has gone sky high, which will further grow in the next 20 years to drive the global environmental and social improvements. The SCP HAT is a great tool of the Initiative to identify hotspots and to examine the unintended negative impacts. But you must look at it from a sectoral and regional view, through the perspective of a small, medium sized enterprise (SME). Another relevant point is to consider the multiple impacts. That will help in identifying the policy recommendations. To improve the use of Life Cycle knowledge we need translators required to connect the LCA community and User community in such a way that they understand each other. And we need co-creation; bringing designers, the LCA community and the business community together to develop tools, databases, and processes.
Jim’s future challenge for Life Cycle Thinking in one word: Co-create
Sonia Valdivia: Very encouraging is the evolution of LC techniques since 2009 when social LCA became the new kid on the block complementing environmental LCA. In 2021 the revised UNEP social LCA Guidelines and the ISO 14075 standard development processes on S-LCA were launched. Despite these developments, SLCA is still considered at an early stage compared to environmental LCA. For more applications and connection with environmental LCA, LC databases and their interoperability need to be strengthened. Key recent milestones are the SDG and the Paris Agreement on Climate change. Both promote sustainability and LC thinking but more awareness is needed among Governments, consumers and companies. Companies increasingly demand for ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) systems to support communication and decision-making. However, ESG metrics are far from being LC based except for the CF. Also investors urge for credible sustainability metrics. LCA based metrics developed through international consensus can bridge this gap and boost sustainability in our activities.
Sonia’s future challenge for Life Cycle Thinking in one word: Integration of life cycle tools
Guido Sonnemann: It took several years to become a global initiative, after the initial meeting of European professors with the former director of UNEP DTIE. Since then, demand for LCA has changed; governments start to use LCA in policy making and businesses increase their budgets for developing products with LCA. But LCA is not yet assessing all relevant environmental impacts. For instance, we do not have an indicator for plastic pollution. However, the initiative has a clear track record that consensus models can be developed, like the USEtox model, and now is working with FSLCI on marine litter in the MarILCA project. Another big discussion around LCA methodology is data quality. If we look at traded products the reliability of related LCA data is a major issue. Capacity building of professionals and students are relevant tasks ahead; this will help to develop a common approach on how to do LCA.
Guido’s future challenge for Life Cycle Thinking in one word: Emerging technologies
Olivier Jolliet: A colleague offered a method in 1996 to get the results we wanted in a robust manner using harmonised standardization. Industries need referenced methods, which was driving our working group at SETAC with UNEP. As LCA we are very interdisciplinary and covering the entire life cycle and different types of impact (biodiversity, human health, resources), requiring different experts which we could attract thanks to our collaboration with UNEP. They were all highly motivated to improve the environment, which was extraordinary. Life cycle thinking can also reach consumers if you translate it. For Delhi’s city, we calculated the minutes of life loss and gain for 5800 food items. One hot dog stands for 36 minutes of life loss. It went viral, when CNN tweeted about it resulting in 120,000 likes in one day and a reach of 1.3 billion people. Moms told me that their kids were asking for 10 minutes of life, before asking a fruit. The LCA community has grown over the years and the application of the knowledge has become easier, although some still think LCA is complicated. My new book will be published at the end of August, and the number of students in my LCA classes are growing. We are able to use real case studies, which is an excellent preparation for the next generation of scientists.
Olivier’s future challenge for Life Cycle Thinking in one word: Environmental business using LCA
SUMMARY PANEL 2
Nydia Suppen: The publication ‘Life Cycle Management – A Business Guide to Sustainability of 2007’ is still relevant and used by businesses all around the world to decrease their footprint and to make their value chains more sustainable. Also, Life Cycle Impact Assessment is used frequently by companies in Latin America. More than 60 companies from Mexico, Colombia, Chili have done their case studies to reduce water stress, using LCA methods. So the publications, E-learning modules and methods are all relevant for those companies. SMEs in Africa are also interested in doing capability maturity modelling, so they can start with life cycle thinking. In Latin America this has led to more than 200 companies using an automated tool to do their capability maturity model assessment. There is a call from industry and LCA users to come with a standard for the indicator of desegregation. Costa Rica has now a national equal labelling program that uses LCA. Governments, business and also consumers would like to have preferably one indicator.
Zubeida Zwavel: For the INTEX-project on SMEs, we are doing studies in the clothing industry sector, which help to increase policy awareness around LCA based methods. We help companies with identifying their environmental footprint, starting with looking at the life cycle inventory data (which also requires training). They also learn how to translate that information, so that life cycle-based information becomes more beneficial, by for example opening the door to the European market. We need to mainstream life cycle thinking which is about making people and businesses change their practices. As soon as people start to think beyond their company, they are starting to apply life cycle thinking and we are slowly moving in the right direction. Eco-design is informed by collaboration in the value chain to redesign packaging or products. For instance, South-Africa has adopted a carbon tax and an extended producer responsibility. This is all gaining traction as we get more requests to offer life cycle management trainings.
Hugo Schally: Life cycle assessment is an essential component of many sustainability related policies at EU level, especially when it comes to product related policies. LCA, and more in particular the Environmental Footprint methods adopted by the Commission as the recommended LCA approach to be used (2021 Commission Recommendation), have been used in important policies like taxonomy, the new battery regulation, the Construction Product Regulation, Level(s) and the recently adopted new Regulation on Eco-design of Sustainable Products. LCA and EF methods are also playing important roles in voluntary initiatives like the EU Ecolabel and green public procurement criteria. We use it to support consumers with choosing greener alternatives and getting reliable information. When life cycle knowledge is used in the industry, it opens the door for designing new policies and scale its impact up. Therefore, it is important to continue to develop life cycle impact assessment methods that are fully operational and applicable, as well as to create the broader international consensus. We need to extend the awareness beyond the circle of true believers and keep the interaction between science, methodology development and policy. It is key to both convince and communicate, while developing new polices and legislations building on these methods.
Sanjeevan Bajaj: When tackling the environmental impacts of products, unless we think in life cycle terms, we are never able to future proof ourselves. The role of the Life Cycle Initiative is future proofing, through educating, creating awareness and working on advocacy. Our industries, governments, consultants, consumers all need life cycle tools to make informed decisions. If we speak about industry, then which tools does a sustainability manager or designer need? And how do we help them convincing their top managemen of their relevancet? A better understanding of the latter is necessary to improve the way awareness is created. Furthermore, for policy making, different questions must be tackled: how do we compete with others’ priorities? How do we bring our work to the forefront? Whether it is social development, whether it is economic development, eventually, it is all coming together by adopting life cycle thinking.
Pierryves Padey: In Switzerland, LCA is perceived as transparent, reliable and result-oriented. Considering the growing interest about LCA at the political level, FOEN has to provide scientific evidences to support the discussions. Thus, it is key that LCA are easy to apply, transparent and conclusive. The work of the Life Cycle Initiative such as GLAM, is of strong interest, because it aims at creating consensus on LCIA and will make the LCA even more robust.
In parallel, we also use the Swiss Eco-Factors according to the Ecological Scarcity Method since 1990. It integrates the Swiss goals regarding different environmental domains (Ozone, GHG, etc.) and then aggregates the results into a single score. Using this with at least another LCIA method, provides conclusive information when performing LCA.
From our perspective, coupling simple and conclusive approach with high-quality data are the key factors to integrate LCA in policies development.
Live poll with the audience: Which gaps should the Initiative fill in the coming years to promote SCP?
- Nydia Suppen: enhance communication and understanding of life cycle thinking to motivate businesses and consumers
- Sanjeevan Bajaj: Convincing and motivating people to get into action
- Pierryves Padey: Increase data collection and access to data for everyone
- Zubeida Zwavel: Harmonization and collaboration within multi-stakeholder partnerships
- Hugo Schally: Progress in development and application of LC knowledge and tools for policymaking and economic activities
Steven Stone: For me the Life Cycle Initiative represents the foundational metrics of circularity. It is the basis for understanding foot printing and how circular products, companies or economies really are. The Initiative gives you the tools to put your finger on the important spot of interoperability data sets with open access. I look forward to the next 20 years as the Initiative will become more critical as we are more aware of the footprint of our actions and consumption. The plastics agreement with a strong focus on the life cycle of plastics makes the Initiative even more relevant. For me this community is part of the building blocks for going forward. The Economy Division of UNEP is focussing on high impact sectors as buildings and construction, mobility, plastics, textiles, electronics etc. This community will be very important in determining how we work with industry to reduce those footprints over time.