Expertise Unplugged #2: Product LCA with Dr. Stephen Allen

Expertise Unplugged episode #2: Vaayu's Beth Greenaway sits down with expert Dr. Stephen Allen to discuss life cycle assessment in retail.

Footprinting & LCA
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Expertise Unplugged #2: Product LCA with Dr. Stephen Allen

In episode 2 of our Expertise Unplugged series, we share insights from the brilliant Dr. Stephen Allen, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath and an industry expert in life cycle assessment (LCA).

For this episode, our Head of Climate Strategy, Beth Greenaway, sat down with Stephen to discuss LCA: its parameters, the benefits of its use in this changing landscape, good practice, and more.  

This is an exciting conversation in the context of the changing European legislative landscape, where new and proposed laws like the French Loi AGEC Decree 2022-748 and the EU ESPR are mandating Digital Product Passports, which, together with upcoming requirements such as the French Loi Climat ("EcoScore") are poised to require product-level footprinting for consumer disclosure.

Dr. Stephen Allen is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering and Associate Director of the Institute for Sustainability at the University of Bath. His research focuses on embedding sustainability in design and engineering through life cycle assessment.

In his early professional years, Stephen worked as an engineer in remote regions of Canada and Mexico, focusing on designing and constructing equipment and housing for ecological field research. Since then, he has served as the Energy Adviser at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, offering scientific guidance for public policy and contributing expertise to select committee inquiries. Stephen also held positions leading projects for corporate clients, aiding them in quantifying and minimizing their environmental impact. 

His publications have been pivotal in shaping policy decisions for parliament, government agencies, and the Committee on Climate Change. Additionally, professional publications have drawn from his work to influence industry practices. He won the George Stephenson Prize from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and earned a spot on the USA’s International Visitor Leadership Programme, focusing on climate change and renewable energy.

Stephen supports Vaayu in externally reviewing the avoided emission method for off-price business models, ensuring the credibility of the resulting impact calculations for our partners. He has also been pivotal in supporting and advising Vaayu’s LCA team while developing its avoided emissions methodology for off-price business models.

The full interview covers the questions below, using real-world examples to illustrate LCA's practical applications for the retail industry. Watch Part One and Part Two of Expertise Unplugged #2: Product LCA with Dr. Stephen Allen.

What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

A life cycle assessment looks at a product's entire journey, from when it’s made to when it’s thrown away or recycled. It helps us understand how a product affects the environment during each stage of its life (life cycle).

To calculate a product’s impact, we gather data about everything related to that specific product — from the materials used to make it to how it’s produced, transported, used by consumers and eventually disposed of. 

This data is then used to estimate the environmental impacts associated with each stage, like carbon emissions or water usage. Adding up these impacts gives us a comprehensive view of a product’s environmental footprint.

This information is highly valuable on the journey to reducing impact because it helps companies make more sustainable choices, like designing products that have a lower environmental impact or finding ways to reduce waste and emissions during a product’s life cycle. It’s also extremely useful in keeping the consumer informed about product impact and helping educate them on impact. 

LCA is like having a map that shows us the best route to lower impact in the future. At Vaayu, we’re proud to have an extensive in-house LCA team that dedicates its time to calculating impact for our partners, improving our methodologies in line with global standards and good practices, and building our consistently derived impact database — the world’s first LCA database built specifically for retail. 

Vaayu also calculates environmental footprints across 16 impact categories — including water consumption, land use, freshwater ecotoxicity, freshwater eutrophication, marine eutrophication, non-renewable energy consumption and more. These categories meet the requirements of Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodology and provide unparalleled insight into Scope 3 impact, the most challenging Scope to calculate.

The following is covered in Part One of Expertise Unplugged #2: Product LCA with Dr. Stephen Allen

What is the Process of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)? 

In simple terms, LCA is a systematic process to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product throughout its life. When done in line with standards such as ISO 14044 and the European Commission’s ‘Product Environmental Footprint’ (PEF) method, it involves several stages:

  1. Goal and Scope Definition: Setting the purpose and boundaries of the assessment.

  2. Life Cycle Inventory (LCI): Collecting data on all inputs and outputs associated with the product.

  3. Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA): Evaluating the environmental impacts of these inputs and outputs.

  4. Interpretation: Analyzing results including uncertainty and sensitivity analysis (testing findings’ robustness), and drawing conclusions.

At Vaayu we adopt the above stages in line with industry good practice and can also include reporting (presenting findings in a clear report) and external review (having our calculations reviewed by experts outside of our organization).

There are many different types of LCAs that focus on specific stages or aspects of a product’s life cycle — including cradle-to-grave, from raw materials to end-of-life; cradle-to-gate, used to measure up until the factory gate before being sent to consumers; and cradle-to-cradle, used for more circular products (reused or recycled at end-of-life) — providing targeted insights for informed decision-making.

“A particular coloring process, for example — what are the different inputs to coloring? The different material dyes, and so on. What do you need to go in at an individual step in the process, and what are the outputs? What are the wastes, what are the emissions?” said Stephen. “Try and be as comprehensive as possible and go back up your supply chain, and also to later stages in the life of your product.”

How Can Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Help Reach Net Zero?

“If what we’re aiming for is reducing our impact on the climate, then we want to try and make sure that the decisions we take, the things we do differently, do really lead to an overall reduction in emissions,” says Stephen. “You need to have a comprehensive view, think about the overall carbon footprint, to ensure that happens, because sometimes, doing something in one area of a life cycle may have increased emissions at other stages.”

LCA is a crucial tool for retailers aiming to achieve net-zero emissions. By conducting LCAs, retailers can identify hotspots of carbon emissions and other environmental impacts in their supply chains and product offerings. This data allows them to prioritize areas for improvement, such as selecting more sustainable materials, optimizing production processes, reducing transportation emissions, and enhancing end-of-life product management. 

LCA also helps make informed decisions about energy sources, packaging and logistics. It ultimately guides retailers toward more sustainable practices and reducing their carbon footprint, contributing significantly to their net-zero goals.

Initiatives such as WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan) are crucial to this success in the retail industry. They provide guidelines, resources and support to retailers and brands to reduce waste, minimize environmental impact and promote sustainable practices.

The following is covered in Part Two of Expertise Unplugged #2: Product LCA with Dr. Stephen Allen 

How Does Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Relate to Circularity?

Understanding the impact of products on an individual level is intended to lead to data-driven decision-making. Using LCAs to get a fuller view of impact means that some businesses move away from the product level to review their company as part of a bigger picture. 

This has led many companies, especially in the current climate, to consider their business models and how they can be improved.

Circular business models are not a new idea. However, with a more granular and accurate understanding of the product life cycle across the entire retail sector, more companies are switching tactics to become more circular. This covers everything from well-established brands implementing recycling and resale arms to companies whose business models are focused on rental, recommerce, and off-price waste streams. Vaayu is proud to have partners with circular business models, including Vinted and Otrium

What Are the Types of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

There are two main approaches to LCA, both of which lead to different outcomes:

  1. Attributional Life Cycle Assessment (ALCA)

  2. Consequential Life Cycle Assessment (CLCA)

The Attributional approach (ALCA) evaluates current environmental impacts without considering potential changes, while the Consequential approach (CLCA) explores the dynamic consequences of alterations in behavior, markets or systems. 

ALCA is often used for benchmarking and compliance, while CLCA helps identify the environmental outcomes of decisions and strategies. ALCA is more straightforward, while CLCA is more complex, involving modeling and analyzing potential shifts in behaviors and markets.

“It’s not always a linear relationship,” says Stephen. Both approaches have unique applications based on their focus and objectives. For example, attributional LCA is used to understand the impact of a product in isolation, while the calculation of avoided emissions and the impact of circular business models entails the use of consequential LCA, where analysis of system-wide change (e.g. buying second-hand instead of new) provides a more complete understanding of the scenario.

What Does the Future of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Look Like?

The future of LCA promises to be even more dynamic and transformative. “When you’re looking into the future, how we’ve made things so far is not necessarily a good indication of how we’ll do it in 10 or 20 or 30 years or more,” says Stephen. “Sometimes the decisions we’re making now, we need to try and think about how things are changing.”

Digitalization will continue, and given the trajectory of the retail industry and its looming sustainability policies and regulations, a keen focus on the circular economy can only continue to grow. As consumer demand for transparency increases, leveraging product impact to engage consumers will be an even more powerful tool. The call for more detailed product impact information will also benefit global supply chains and product design.

Organizations that calculate LCAs, like the team at Vaayu, should see global standardization of LCA methodologies and practices in the near future. This expansion will likely require calculating a broader range of impact categories. 

“The 90s/00s saw LCA become a multi indicator approach, but then this was reduced to single indicators, particularly carbon, because of concern of prominent environmental issues (e.g. climate change). We are now seeing a resurgence of multi indicators,” says Stephen. Vaayu has already predicted and prepared for this by expanding its LCA capabilities beyond carbon to calculate the 16 PEF impact categories.

The future of LCA looks even brighter, bolder and more granular, promising a robust transformation that aligns with evolving sustainability policies and regulations. By assessing the life cycles of products, receiving a fuller understanding of their impact, and taking measures to actively reduce it, the retail ecosystem can not only benefit but also support wider society in decelerating climate change. 

For more information on life cycle assessment and how it works, watch Product LCA with Dr. Stephen Allen Part One and Part Two, the second in Vaayu’s Expertise Unplugged series.

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