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May 29, 2024

Put sustainability plans into action with LCA automation

Product lifecycle assessments are vital to moving the needle on sustainability metrics. But they’re incredibly difficult to do. Enter LCA automation.

Your favorite coffee mug. Your customized phone case. Your most comfortable chair. Have you ever wondered what the environmental impact is of bringing just one of these everyday products to life?

The answer isn't as simple as flipping a switch. Assessing a single product’s environmental footprint is a surprisingly intricate and time-consuming process—and a deep dive into the environmental accounting labyrinth.

Imagine meticulously tracking every stage of a product's journey—from raw material extraction and processing to manufacturing, transportation and end-of-life disposal. Each step impacts the environment, whether it’s CO2 emissions, land use or resource consumption. And quantifying these impacts requires sifting through data on energy use, transportation modes, material sources and waste generation.

But that's not all. The business would also need to factor in complex allocation methods to account for shared resources and byproducts. Let's say a factory produces multiple products. How does it fairly distribute the environmental footprint of the electricity it uses?

Now, multiply this tracking process across hundreds or thousands of SKUs that make up the product and service portfolio in a large enterprise. It’s then that the immensity of the task—widely known as lifecycle assessment (LCA)—becomes clear.

But this is what it takes to turn a sustainability strategy into action. LCA has emerged as the leading, science-based method for assessing the environmental impacts of products and services and discovering further ways to improve their performance. The reason it’s so important is that businesses’ environmental performance is mainly driven by the environmental performance of the products they produce and sell. So, without knowing what that environmental performance is, businesses can’t hope to move the needle on their own sustainability metrics.

The only way to scale LCA, however, is to automate it—which many businesses are now working to do. Once they’ve got this information, they can share it with stakeholders across the enterprise and value chain, from sales to procurement to product engineering, all of whom can use it to make fact-based, informed and effective decisions that further the business’s sustainability goals.

Let’s take a look at how to achieve LCAs at scale.

1. Leverage configurable LCA models

A traditional LCA model captures one product along its lifecycle, with all the data and details added manually and usually separately for each SKU. This approach, however, becomes impractical, inefficient and unmanageable when dealing with a complete portfolio of product categories and thousands of SKUs. That’s why it’s essential to use an alternative approach that helps achieve scalability: configurable LCA models.

A configurable LCA model represents a product category, service or company, using configurable processes and parameters. Configurable processes allow users to change a component from one material to another, while configurable parameters allow users to change process values, such as the weights of different components.

Picture an LCA model that captures an e-bike and a regular bike. The e-bike might have an aluminum frame and the regular bike a steel frame. This can be changed dynamically in the model. The weight of the steel frame might differ from the weight of the aluminum frame. The two product models use the same LCA models but activate different processes and weights depending on which model is calculated. This approach is scalable across thousands of SKUs and product models, creates a single source of truth and can be easily maintained and updated.

2. Integrate with enterprise systems

Data collection consumes most of the time required for conducting an LCA. That’s why automation can’t happen without some heavy lifting in the data foundation.

A key aspect here is to automate data collection through APIs and create a data lake that represents the data structure needed to perform the LCA calculations. The data lake is then integrated with the LCA software to send the data into the configurable models to perform calculations and retrieve the results.

While this may sound like a big effort, the required data is often digitized as part of the company’s overall digital strategy, so the LCA work might just piggyback onto existing efforts.

3. Introduce transparent LCA software

Transparency is key when turning your sustainability strategy into action. It puts you in the driver’s seat and lets you focus on the processes and products where you can make an actual impact.

Therefore, it’s highly risky to introduce sustainability software that remains a black box, giving you average data with limited insights into the actual sources of environmental impact. Doing so could lead to costly investments that do not support your sustainability strategy and ambitions.

It’s essential to choose LCA software that provides a level of detail and transparency in the LCA results that allows the company to make fact-based, informed and effective decisions. Even better, the software should allow business to use their own primary data and build up company-specific libraries, backed up with secondary lifecycle impact data.

To learn more about transparent LCA software, see SimaPro’s website.

4. Make sustainability metrics actionable through conversational AI

Putting your sustainability strategy into action means making sure all departments in the business are and remain actively involved. Each of these departments, including the boardroom, will have different needs.

Understanding those needs is vital, as is translating results into bite-sized and contextual information for different user groups. They all need different information, have different ways of working and have different KPIs to hit, requiring the balancing of different, often competing criteria in their day-to-day decision making. 

Sales managers, for instance, want to be sure of the environmental claims they can make about a product or service when selling. Engineers want to understand which products and product architectures have the lower environmental footprint and might need more granular data. Operations managers want to understand how they can mitigate the carbon hot spots across factories and logistics. Procurement officers need to be able to add environmental footprints into the mix when evaluating and benchmarking suppliers.

Additionally, some teams need more granular sustainability data than others, while others require more dynamic data or have specific visualization requirements. Using the outcomes of this trajectory, businesses can tailor sustainability metrics to their needs and goals.

5. Collect credible primary data

Climate targets extend to the company’s supply chain. Industry-specific collaboration initiatives like Catena-X in the automotive industry or Together for Sustainability in the chemicals industry are standardizing the creation of product carbon footprints and are working on solutions to share them in the value chain. 

We are working with a client in the automotive value chain to build a scalable product carbon footprint solution that can seamlessly send and receive carbon footprint data through the Catena-X network. This data is used as input for the client’s own accounting for purchased goods and services, as well as for reporting product carbon footprint further downstream to customers.

The benefits here are an increased use of primary data and more accurate calculations, data exchange at scale for potentially hundreds of thousands of SKUs, and dynamic measurement of progress toward decarbonization.

LCA automation: the future of sustainability

LCA automation enables companies to meet their sustainability goals with more detailed data exchange, better ways to monitor impacts and the ability to engage in fact-based sustainable innovation. As such, LCA is the first step to turning a sustainability strategy into action. While continuously conducting LCAs across product portfolios is an immense task, LCA automation shows the way to achieving not only business sustainability but also a competitive edge in a sustainability-minded world.

This article was originally contributed to by Jan Konietzko.

Ivo van der Zanden

Sustainability Solutions Architect

Ivo van der Zanden

Ivo van der Zanden is a sustainability solutions architect, supporting organizations to build and grow their sustainability strategies. His focus is on life cycle assessment (LCA), sustainable IT and sustainable manufacturing & operations.

Joeri Verheijden
Joeri Verheijden

Joeri is a business developer at PRé Sustainability and dedicated to helping companies enhance their sustainability efforts with SimaPro. His focus is on developing tailored solutions for customers, enabling them to automate and scale life cycle assessments (LCAs), paving the way for a more sustainable future.

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