written by
Stef Vervaet

What is a Life Cycle Analysis? The basics of LCA explained.

Private sector 6 min read , March 18, 2021
  • A Life Cycle Analysis (or LCA) is a powerful tool for companies to use when evaluating and improving their sustainability.
  • This article discusses what an LCA is, its importance for global sustainable development, and how conducting LCA’s can benefit companies in the long run.
A Life Cycle Analysis (or LCA) is a fundamental tool for companies to use when evaluating and improving their sustainability.
A Life Cycle Analysis can be a vital tool for companies to use when evaluating and improving their sustainability.

What is a life cycle analysis?

A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), or also known as a Life Cycle Assessment, is a methodology used to evaluate the impact a product, service, or activity has on the environment.

An LCA can be used to determine the sustainability of a product by considering its impact at each stage of the life cycle. This means looking at the impact of extracting raw materials for the product, the manufacturing phase, how it’s distributed to the end-user, its impact when people are using it, and what happens after a product has reached the end of its useful life.

An LCA will typically assess the environmental impact from a climate change perspective but also from less obvious impacts such as risks to human health and natural ecosystems.

Why is life cycle analysis important for sustainable development?

The importance of an LCA should not be underestimated. We all want to live in a world with cleaner air, pollution-free environments, and a stable climate. Those outcomes are all achievable but will require us to make important changes to our lifestyle and how we interact with the environment. The responsibility for change not only lies with consumers – governments and companies also have an important role to play.

Our governments and regulatory institutions already make changes that impose environmental restrictions on the use of certain products. For example, in the EU, the F-gas regulations were created to phase out the use of high GWP refrigerant gases in products such as air conditioning units.

Government intervention is welcomed, but is often slow to materialise and can be diluted by internal politics. Companies shouldn’t wait for governments to establish environmental regulations, rather a more proactive approach should be taken to accelerate sustainable development. An LCA gives companies the power to do this, providing the methodology to self-regulate their products and services.

Companies regularly conducting LCA’s of their products and making improvements based on the results has huge potential to enable continued sustainable development.

Benefits of doing a life cycle analysis

Integrating life cycle analyses into your normal business process can offer many benefits:

  • Product Development – An LCA can help highlight areas where there is a significant cost or environmental risk. At the product development stage, alternative raw materials or inputs can be assessed against each other to evaluate the best use of company resources with the lowest risk and impact.
  • Marketing – An LCA will allow a company to confidently market the environmental awareness and sustainability of their products or services. With environmental consciousness becoming increasingly more important in the eyes of consumers – marketing a company’s sustainability initiatives can give them a competitive edge, and increasing its green brand value.
  • Evaluating Suppliers – An LCA can help the procurement department in a company to make quicker and more informed decisions. Requesting suppliers to present an LCA of their product can make the decision on which suppliers to partner with much easier.
  • Exec Level Management – Top-level management will be concerned with the day-to-day running of a business but also long-term growth and risk mitigation. In terms of long-term growth, an LCA can help identify ways to improve the current manufacturing process or create new products. An LCA can also help with risk mitigation by identifying regulatory or environmental risks associated with a product or service. These risks can be dealt with proactively, avoiding the potential for fines or reputational damage.
  • Recruitment – Graduates and potential employees are now taking sustainability into account when choosing who to work for. Companies with greater environmental awareness can benefit from access to a greater pool of talent when recruiting employees. An LCA of products or services can help demonstrate a company’s sustainability commitment to potential employees.
Integrating life cycle analyses into your normal business process can offer many benefits.
Integrating life cycle analyses into your normal business process can offer many benefits.

How to perform a life cycle analysis

To perform a life cycle analysis, companies will need to follow four main steps:

1. Goal and scope definition

The first step of an LCA is to define the goal of the analysis and the product, service, or activity to be assessed. The boundaries and assumptions of the analysis will also need to be established. This is necessary to create a clear view of what the end result should be, and prevent an analysis from becoming too simplified or unnecessarily complex.

2. Inventory analysis

The next stage is the complete inventory analysis. To develop the inventory, staff will need to collect data on the energy and raw materials used at each stage of the life cycle. At each stage, there will likely be some form of environmental output. These outputs will also need to be calculated – resulting in an inventory of GHG emissions and waste outputs.

3. Impact assessment

The third step of an LCA is to assess the overall impacts of the product, service or activity. Different products and services can impact a number of different areas. The main impact categories that are assessed are usually Global Warming Potential (GWP) and carbon emissions but other common categories include the impact to human health or Eutrophication (impact to water bodies such as lakes and rivers).

Some of the common Impact Categories are:

  • Global Warming Potential (GWP) – Climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation. An LCA is critical to establishing whether a product or service has a significant contribution to global warming.
  • Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) – The ozone layer provides us with a natural shield against harmful UV-B rays. Some products need to be assessed to assess their contribution to the breakdown of the ozone layer.
  • Eutrophication Potential (EP) – This arises when excessive levels of macro-nutrients are in the environment, caused by nutrient emissions to air, water, and soil. The obvious example is nutrient enrichment in lakes and rivers as a result of agricultural practices. An LCA can determine the impact a product or service has on the ecosystem of a water body and its inhabitants.
  • Human Toxicity Potential (HTP) – Many substances and chemicals are harmful to human health. An LCA can be used to assess whether a product or service is a risk to humans in the short or long-term.

4. Interpretation

The final step of the LCA will be to review the analysis and interpret the findings and results. To draw a few conclusions, a company could benchmark its product against other products in their portfolio or competitor products. The analysis could present some opportunities to improve the sustainability of the product or service and potential areas for more efficient manufacturing.

The final step of the LCA will be to review the analysis and interpret the findings and results.
The final step of the LCA will be to review the analysis and interpret the findings and results.

Completing an LCA is an iterative process. Once complete, it will be necessary to revise the analysis in the future. If you take any product available today, its life cycle may be different in two years time. Consumers might use the product differently, the materials used in the production phase could change or be procured from alternative locations. With these changes, regular revisions, and updates to an LCA are needed to ensure the accuracy of the analysis and continued sustainability of a company's products and services.

How we can help

Our team of experts at Futureproofed has helped companies to complete life cycle analyses across a range of sectors. We can provide advisory throughout the development of your LCA or complete a full, comprehensive analysis of your products and services. Through a sustainability consultation, we can provide highly accurate assessments in a short timeframe.

If you would like to know more about LCAs or understand how our team can help, please contact us.

Stef is our Futureproofed Business Sustainable Strategy consultant, involved in the development of new tools and methodologies to help companies seize the opportunities sustainability offers. He is one of the many enthusiastic cyclists on our team, and has caught the outdoor bug, and loves to travel.

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