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Confused about LCA Standards? You Should Be

How fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers can untangle and benefit from standards:

Last month four key international bodies released updates to their lifecycle analysis standards and guidelines. For those of us who think about these things on a daily basis, they provided some clarity as well as some additional complexity. But, for the vast majority of companies and people already confused about standards, they just further muddied up the waters.

Why bother?

So, the first question you might ask yourself is: Why bother? You could just wait until someone imposes a mandate on you – a government body, a client, or some other agency. You could just ignore the whole thing until the mess is sorted out and then jump in when the standards are internationally accepted and everyone’s on the same bandwagon. (That’s definitely a strategy that many companies are taking and not one that can be completely ignored.)

Do want your competitors deciding for you?

There are a number of problems with this strategy, however. First, it leaves you on the sidelines. Your competitors are getting their voices heard. They are involved in trials, in experiments, and in pilot projects. They are participating in the debate and you’re not. Their point of view will help shape the mandate, and yours won’t. Second, when the mandate arrives, you’ll be at the starting point, whereby your competitors will be halfway to the finish line. Maybe you’re okay with these downsides. Maybe they’re not as scary as the cost and work needed to untangle these standards. But maybe there are resources and shortcuts that you can take now that will help you get a leg up on the future work that you’ll have to tackle anyway.

Four Updates

There are a number of different standards in process and these will likely affect your business in some way. (Click here for two comparative charts of these and other standards and methodologies that are currently being developed.) And in the past 6 weeks, four of the leading standards agencies have released new or updated guidelines that have put the entire sustainability community in high gear.

The European Commission’s JRC published their methodological guide for environmental product footprinting. The JRC is aiming for a multi-criteria impact measurement, which is highly detailed and academic approach. And while this is exciting for the field because it is a multi-national approach (that will likely play a leading role in future mandates), the likelihood of this standard being widely adopted in the short-term is slim because of its complexity and related costs.

Meanwhile, the French work is still on the table. The French approach reflects the democratic society in which it was created. There are currently 168 companies attempting to come up with a product-level reporting design that is motivated by consumer communication. Unfortunately this means that there are almost as many different label designs, website designs, and communication protocols as there are companies involved, and the likelihood that this will result in a cohesive approach to product measurement and labelling in the near-term is far-fetched.

The PAS2050 standard, which was the first product-level standard, released by the UK standards agency in conjunction with DEFRA, is now an old man compared to the other standards. It was released in October 2008 and has provided the building blocks of all the discussions since. Last month an update was released that provided additional guidance to questions that have been raised over the previous three years. It is still very relevant to companies wanting to start work on their impact measurement; however, it is likely to be overshadowed by the new releases by the GHG Protocol (see next paragraph).

The GHG Protocol – a collaboration between the WRI (World Resources Institute) and the WBCSD (World Business Council on Sustainable Development) – released their Scope3 and Product Level standards. These are the much anticipated additions to their Scope 1 and Scope 2 standards that have been out for a while. The GHG Protocol has taken a pragmatic approach to lifecycle mapping and measurement and has broken down supply chains into meaningful and useful stages that companies can get their heads around. In the sustainability community, there is a growing feeling that the GHG Protocol standards will end up being the ones that rise to the top and deliver the best ROI to companies and consumers alike.

The 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule stands true for standards and measurement, just as it does for many different aspects of your business. It will cost you 20% of the total to do 80% of the measurement, and 80% to do the last 20%. This is because the last 20% of the more rigorous standards are very complex and highly detailed and are based on an academic approach to metrics. Your business can benefit from getting 80% of the way there at only a fraction of the cost, and get prepared for the mandates that are coming. Choose a standard that has the most business benefit, the highest ROI, the lowest initial cost, and that matches your motivations for doing the work. This is likely to be the standard that will ultimately be adopted by you, your competitors and your industry.

Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry that includes the web-based, lifecycle assessment and product carbon footprinting tool Carbonostics. www.carbonostics.com

Sara Pax
Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of sustainability metrics specialized in the food and beverages industry with its smart product-level lifecycle assessment solution, Carbonostics (cost + carbon + nutrition). www.carbonostics.com
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