July 2012 | Commentary | Green Landscape

Don’t Be Afraid Of Product Lifecycle Assessment

Tags: Green Logistics

Sara Pax is President, Bluehorse Associates, 312-565-9967

Sustainability, carbon footprint, and lifecycle assessment (LCA) are becoming common discussion topics in the boardroom. These terms often generate fear as well as discussion, as executives worry about how their company will stack up against competitors, how much an environmental impact analysis will cost, and whether the measurements will be accurate.

The benefit of analyzing supply chain sustainability, however, is often reaped from the journey, rather than the final number generated. And avoiding LCA can cause organizations to miss the opportunities this analysis can bring.

For example, according to LCA data, the lifecycle carbon footprint of an average ready-to-eat lasagna is 10 pounds of equivalent carbon emissions. This number doesn't mean much to most people. It is neither good nor bad, and does not create a judgement about the lasagna, the manufacturer, or the process.

Today it is just a number. But in arriving at that measurement, a few key discoveries gave the lasagna maker real-time empirical evidence to help make intelligent decisions about operations along its supply chain.

First, the data immediately discredited the assumption that the lasagna packaging—comprising layers of plastic, plastic-coated paper, aluminum, and cardboard—was an environmental trouble spot. In fact, packaging materials accounted for only eight percent of the product's total impact.

The analysis also showed that the tomatoes—which had been traditionally sourced as canned—had a much higher carbon footprint and cost than fresh tomatoes shipped from a greater distance.

Second, many operations along the supply chain evolved organically. For example, the layers of plastic around a crate could have been set by the manufacturer when the packaging equipment was installed 15 years ago. Now that the roads are resurfaced and the lasagna maker's distribution center is closer, it is possible to decrease the number of layers—saving money and plastic, and reducing environmental impact.

Hundreds of anecdotal tales relate the efficiencies companies discover throughout their supply chains by tackling an LCA, which examines a product's entire lifecycle, rather than relying on energy totals generated by enterprise resource planning systems or utility providers.

Saving Money Through LCA

Some companies assume that LCA results in recommendations to change areas of their supply chain that are outside their control. Can a small manufacturer influence a much larger company's process? Can a cheesemaker influence what food farmers feed their cows? Maybe not. But the LCA journey will reveal other small factors that businesses can control, from energy use on the factory floor, to extra waste caused by a transfer between truck and warehouse, to an ingredient that can be sourced farther away with less expense and waste.

Reducing waste leads to reducing costs—and carbon emissions. Lifecycle analyses don't have to be expensive and time-consuming. The LCA playing field has evolved, and new tools and methodologies allow companies to create a lifecycle measurement in a few days, at a reasonable cost.

LCA is becoming democratized and more accessible to companies of all sizes. Get informed about your supply chain, and reduce your costs along the way. It will be worth the journey.