Insights on Environmental Health & Safety (EHS), Operational Risk and Product Stewardship

7 Tips for Responsible Life Cycle Assessment Practice

November 27th, 2019
Dr. Martin Baitz
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An organization I worked for was sued for the publication of partial information from a report we conducted because the commissioner of the study only communicated isolated facts.

It might have been the first Life Cycle Assessment study held up to the spotlight through litigation. The case went all the way to the German supreme court, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig. The plaintiff’s attorney requested a cease-and-desist order for the entire report, claiming that the authors of the Life Cycle Assessment study made 80 mistakes leading to inaccurate results. It required serious efforts on our part to disprove the claims.   

We ended up winning the trial by disproving there was any error in 79 of the accusations, and we had to correct one recycling rate by 3%. The commissioner who opened the organization up to this kind litigation through his generalized communication learned a costly lesson, namely to communicate responsibly. So that you don’t make the same kind of mistake, I’d like to share with you a few practical tips for how to be responsible in your sustainability efforts and communication. 

1. Avoid Scope Drift 

If you make a comparative analysis of two different materials, say glass vs. plastic bottles, sometimes the results don’t align with what you were expecting. If that’s the case, use the study to expand your understanding for how to improve. Don’t shift your focus halfway through the study as the results become clearer. In other words, remain focused on the technical specifications and deliverables defined at the beginning of the project—stick to the documented goals and scope. Avoid modeling overcomplicated or theoretically extended systems. Concentrate on the core process you’d like to improve and analyze. Don’t get lost unnecessarily widening the scope. If you keep extending the scope, you could literally expand it to cover the entire world. Don’t drift.  

2. Cite All Methods & Sources 

Reveal the origins of your work, such as the impact methods used. In software, that means communicating the version, the release year, etc. With data, it means revealing the database version and the reference year of data used. Cite your methods and sources.

3. Match Data With Goal and Scope

Be clear about the kind of background data you are using. Make sure it is the correct technology and completely up-to-date. Check to make sure the dataset documentation fits the purpose of the goal and scope. The amassed foreground data should match the degree of detail found in the upstream and downstream data. Ensure upstream and downstream data supports the goal and scope.  

4. Dig Deep Into the Results 

Identify hotspots in your own operations and in your supply chain that lead to opportunities for improvement and options for change. Then discuss the opportunities and options with your design or engineering team to trace the hotspots back to the material, design and process options. Dig deep. 

5. Remain Grounded in Reality 

Avoid communicating inadequate results based on purely mathematical models. Instead, communicate based on the specific engineering reality.  

Once Life Cycle Assessment results are there, formulate action steps from those results by proposing changes or improvements to your operations or those of your suppliers. Keep it real.  

6. Review & Compare Responsibly 

To avoid unjustified criticism and prevent reviewers from approving inaccurate facts, thoroughly check: 

If you use database background data that dominates the results, inform data providers and ask for comments and feedback to ensure the technically viable application of the background data. Remain responsible to the end.  

7. Communicate Results Thoroughly 

Avoid cherry-picking information. Give a full account with respect to the complete report. Make sure your marketing department is involved throughout the study. That way they can responsibly communicate the results at the end. Be thorough in your communication. 

Conclusions 

There are a handful of important rules to follow to make a Life Cycle Assessment responsible. It’s not supercomplicated. However, a word of warning: Even if you adhere closely to the seven points I’ve outlined, different stakeholders will still need to share responsibility: the commissioner of the study, the conductor of the study, the database suppliers, the decision-makers and marketing. You’ll need to get all of them on board. Avoid “flat tires” in your sustainability efforts—make your Life Cycle Assessment airtight!

Dr. Martin Baitz

Dr. Martin Baitz is the team lead for thinkstep content. His responsibilities include: Maintenance, update and future strategies on life-cycle databases and life-cycle information supply and exchange, development and setup of professional life-cycle databases, quality control of life-cycle information databases and data sets, and he's an expert in life-cycle assessment methodology and its application to products and systems particularly related to chemicals, fuels and plastics.

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