As a message to the LCA community and the researchers: the bottleneck is not in the lack of sophisticated tools and methodologies. Companies need LCA departments and practitioners that are better connected with other departments and show genuine interest in alternative approaches. The solution is not to make better LCAs but get a better understanding of what marketing, design, research, purchasing and other departments need.
Based on the round tables, quantitative research and existing scientific research (Frankl 2002) we developed a five-step approach to make the LCA department more relevant:
Become a champion for LCA
Assure long-term management commitment to sustainability
Link LCA with business objectives
Find a shared language
Jointly explore new applications
These five steps will help LCA departments and practitioners to increase their impact in their company.
Become a Champion for Life Cycle Assessment
Most LCA experts have been trained in technical skills and try to capture reality in a model to see what can make a change. However, technical skills are not sufficient to make a change. We learned from successful LCA practitioners how they are working to become an internal champion, an intrapreneur for LCA, someone who connects with other people and departments, who pleads the cause of LCA and that explores how LCA can contribute to the company’s goals.
Business managers want to have as much information as possible to reduce the risk, but know that you never know 100 % for sure. The same holds true for designers, they often work on an idea, a hunch without knowing whether it will work; for instance, they know they have a cost target, but in the early sketch phase they have no way of checking the cost with any precision, so unlike many LCA experts, they are happy with any information that helps them to stay on course and consider the environmental impact. A large part of training the designers is about managing (and living with) uncertainties.
Intrapreneurship has some aspects that are quite contradictory to LCA. Perhaps the most important one being that you are not completely sure about the outcomes before you do something. You take a calculated risk. That requires courage and stamina as you do not know what the outcome will be. It also requires the courage to acknowledge that we are imperfect. In businesses, people are used to making decisions with an uncertain outcome, at least to some extent.
To understand how people use the results from an LCA it is important to look at yourself from their perspective. That can change a lot. Just as turning the camera on planet earth – as the astronauts from the Apollo space mission did – had a tremendous impact on how we look at what we do to (the environment on) the earth. A very simple way of doing that is meeting with the users from your LCA study without a specific purpose, drink a cup of coffee and listen to what they are working on, what drives them, what successes they have achieved, and what challenges they face. That will give you great insight in what opportunities LCA can help with. And seizing opportunities is what makes a change.
Knowing what your (internal) clients need – or call it your audience – will also help to present the results in a way that is appealing to them and is relevant for their goals and needs. If you learn how to tell your story, you can convince, motivate and stimulate people to do something with the results from your LCA study. And of course, facts play an important role in that story.
Long-Term Management Commitment to Sustainability
Many big companies have a long term commitment to sustainability. Research (MIT, UNEP and BCG 2015) shows that 42 % of the boards are committed to sustainability and that 31 % of the companies have operational KPIs related to sustainability. Still, support from senior management really is a prerequisite for having an impact; some experienced corporate LCA practitioners have been able to connect to the long-term goals of the company. They learned that management likes facts; facts can help them to make the right, informed decisions about sustainability. And facts are something LCA can deliver, sometimes with some uncertainty, which is something management has learnt to deal with.
Thus, LCA and LCM can play an important role on the road to achieving sustainability goals. We all know the examples of companies that use LCA or LCM in their sustainability strategy. At the same time there are still many companies that do not build their sustainability strategy on sound and robust figures. They follow what others are saying and doing or one of the latest trends with less consistent and transparent methods to measure. So, there is an opportunity for all LCA practitioners because they know the facts and can show something else than what you would expect or what everyone else is doing.
For companies that already use LCA, top management is not only committed to sustainability, but also to LCA. The survey PRé conducted in 2014 shows that in 57 % of the companies that use LCA, management is aware of LCA. So, LCA is on the agenda in the majority of the companies. Finding an internal sponsor in the (top) management can accelerate the use of LCA in the business. That will definitely help you to deliver value for the business.
Business and LCA have two totally different languages, or as we would say in LCA – nomenclature. As LCA practitioners we know what happens when you do not have the nomenclature right; things get mixed up. So, make sure you understand and capture the language from the people that use your studies (Fig. 9.1).
As Gregory Unruh (2014) puts it in a series “Each functional area has its own conversation built on terminology and jargon suited to their specific business concerns. ….tap into these functional conversations and help managers develop what can be called a sustainability dialect that translates corporate sustainability goals into the local functional discussions and thinking.”
Speaking the same language also helps to embed LCA in the core processes of these departments. Only if it is embedded the full potential can be achieved. Only if it is embedded these departments will see and experience the potential of LCA or even sustainability. If not, LCA will probably stay a staff driven “exercise”.
This transition is not something that can be achieved overnight. It requires a good radar to sense what is important for people, not only functional but also personal. Sharing – or at least understanding – the same language is really essential to pick up the signals. It also requires a step-by-step approach to link the results from LCA to the objectives and language of these departments or even the corporate strategy.
Next we will describe what such an approach could look like.
Link Life Cycle Assessment with Business Objectives
In most companies, sustainability goals are set top-down. In the corporate sustainability strategy, goals are set for energy, water and climate change, for example. Business units and departments are then given the task to achieve these goals and start various projects to realize these goals in the timeframe given. The projects are topic, location or process specific and do not take trade-offs into account. Based on the goals, companies want to measure the results to report on them and improve their performance. Often it turns out to be quite hard to report and improve the goals. They were not really substantiated by insights on a business and product level which is where the improvements have to be achieved (left column of Fig. 9.2), and let alone the negative trade-offs these improvements could have.
LCA is much more a bottom-up approach as it starts at a product level. In the product or service life cycle it is identified where a product has its impact. LCA can deliver insights in what impacts occur for each impact category and life cycle stage. It enables us to identify hotspots and improvement opportunities, from material selection to pinpointing the most impactful supplier, from process innovations to contributions of each phase. However, at the same time LCA struggles to link these hotspots and improvement opportunities to the KPIs of the company (see column 2 of Fig. 9.2), especially as these are often formulated in a different language. TSC has done some great work to link hotspots to KPIs, but adding the top-down route is essential to make it company specific and meaningful for management. An integrated approach provides a unique opportunity to achieve maximum alignment of product and corporate strategies (Furfori et al. 2014).
To increase the impact of LCA, the LCA practitioner and the LCA department need to connect the dots. To take the lead in this you can create an overview of business and project KPIs and combine these with the hotspots you identified through LCA studies (Fig. 9.2). Based on those insights and KPIs, projects for improvement can be identified. This approach helps to link the product level with the business/corporate level. It brings together the sustainability insights on a corporate and product level. By doing this you can identify sweet spots, overlap in hotspots as well as blind spots. It also brings together different departments when it shows they need to collaborate to achieve their goals. The same applies for suppliers; based on the hotspots the most relevant suppliers for the sustainability goals – which is not the same as the most important suppliers in terms of costs – can be pinpointed. By doing this the sustainability strategy gets more substantiated and goals become more realistic. By forming new partnerships with suppliers or customers and stimulating cross-company collaboration, innovation can be spurred.
LCA can play an instrumental role in the further implementation of these improvement projects, but do not hesitate to use other tools if needed. Once it has been embedded in the processes, the next step is to set up the infrastructure to facilitate this and to explore new opportunities to create value. The latter can only be done if you are a trusted business partner within your company.
Jointly Explore New Applications
Over the past few years a number of studies have been published about the use of LCA in business (amongst others Chun and Lee 2013; Piekarski et al. 2013). These studies identified the several ways LCA can be used. Some of the studies also identified for which departments the studies could be used. What is missing in those studies is the combination of the two. So, what use is relevant for a specific department? We tried to represent that in Fig. 9.3 below, which was inspired by the study of Moro Piekarski. In your daily practice this is something you need to investigate.
Apart from the type of use, it is important to look at how it is used (ad hoc vs. integrated) and why it is used (reporting, performance improvement or value creation). The overall purpose – or the why question – is related to the corporate sustainability strategy: is it aimed at compliance and reducing risk or is the goal to create shared value. The more it is aimed at value creation, the more LCA should be integrated in the business. Is it more directed at compliance and reporting, LCA probably stays more ad hoc. Reporting and improving performance can be done on a department level, innovation requires a more integrated and holistic approach.
To develop these specific applications for LCA it is essential to link up with people from these departments to explore the needs and opportunities – remember the personas we presented earlier. In some companies they recognized this need and created a specific position to liaise between the LCA department and the internal client. In a transition phase this could be a good solution.