Assessing sustainability is a pursuit rife with complexity and subjectivity. One tool that I have seen that is useful in navigating this pursuit is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) – a cradle-to-grave approach for assessing the environmental impacts of our business activities on a macro level.
At my company, we employ life cycle thinking, and have done so for many years, to gain a broad and comprehensive perspective of our products’ footprints, from design, purchasing of input materials, manufacturing, transport, filling and consumption, to the end-of-life of our packages. Through LCA work, we’ve gained some interesting insights. LCA has allowed us to benchmark the performance of aseptic beverage cartons against alternative packaging systems with respect to climate change, energy use, water consumption, land use, and other environmental indicators – an exercise which has revealed that cartons are environmentally preferable in many cases. Understanding where we stand encourages us to push forward with innovative solutions. We’ve also confirmed the benefit of using a renewable input as opposed to recycled content in the context of Tetra Pak cartons. Study findings reveal that replacing virgin fiber with recycled content would in fact increase the carbon footprint of our packages by significantly increasing package weight (because proportionately more recycled fibers are needed to achieve the same functionality of a carton package made from fresh fibers) and transport-related emissions. With this information in hand, we’ve employed a two-fold strategy for raw materials: first, we try to reduce the amount of material as much as possible, and second, we look for ways to reduce the share of non-renewable materials in our packages to reduce the carbon footprint even further.
By revealing the big picture, a life cycle approach ensures that a company doesn’t create improvement in one area at the expense of another. Rather than looking at specific indicators in isolation (e.g. recycling rate, recycled content), an increasingly wide-spread consensus exists that state-of-the-art LCA, based on internationally-accepted standards, is the best approach to quantify the environmental impacts a packaging might have on the environment from cradle to grave.
LCA as a Communication Device
A relatively new use for LCA is as a stakeholder engagement tool. Increasingly, LCA is becoming a credible and verifiable communication tool for expressing the sustainable value of products and packaging to consumers. The results of LCA studies can be used to justify corporate decisions with respect to operations, material inputs and more. Perhaps more importantly, it can be used to defend against uninformed criticism. This is an interesting development which supports the finding that consumers are increasingly researching green issues and are making purchasing decisions on environmental grounds. In a world of greenwashing, customers grow weary of environmental claims. LCA, if conducted properly and independently verified, can be the antidote. To support consumers in their effort to make more informed choices and to mitigate against false green claims, companies are looking toward objective LCA studies to reveal information about the social and environmental attributes of their brand and products. The challenge of course, is how to effectively boil down the complexity of environmental performance into something easily and quickly absorbed by consumers without jeopardizing the integrity of the research. As demonstrated by the Tesco example, companies continue to wrestle with bridging the gap between a scientifically-sound approach and a communications tool understood by consumers.
Companies also need to recognize that the results of an LCA study may not always align with what consumers value most. In the case of our business, consumers want access to recycling first and foremost because that’s the life cycle stage over which they have direct control and a sense of responsibility. Although our greatest environmental burden does not occur during the end-of-life stage as confirmed by LCA, it is top-of-mind for consumers, so we are actively working to increase the recovery and recycling of our cartons through investment in recycling infrastructure and equipment, market development and awareness campaigns. This reality speaks again to the need for a greater emphasis on education by leading companies to broaden the understanding of “environmental impact” in the minds of consumers and other stakeholders.
Beyond LCA, there might be room for industry and stakeholders to develop more effective communication tools to translate environmental performance into value and benefits for consumers and ultimately help consumers make the “right choice.” The challenge lies in finding the right metrics and channels to communicate performance along supply chains and to the consumers.
To avoid the unintended consequences produced by narrow thinking, a life cycle approach and the intelligence that results from its use can be embedded in product design to yield environmentally superior options. While not a panacea, it is a tool that can prioritize your actions and differentiate your brand on route to a renewing and sustainable future.
Elisabeth Comere is the Director of Environment and Government Affairs for Tetra Pak in North America, the world leader in packaging and food processing solutions. She joined the company in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental strategy. She joined the North American operations in 2010, focusing on advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the U.S. and Canada, and she is active in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Elisabeth previously served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the environment department of the Food & Drink Industry group in Europe.