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Food LCA Pilot Projects: 15 Tips to Avoid the Pitfalls

For many of us in the LCA business, pilot projects can be both invigorating and frustrating. It’s invigorating because we’re often breaking new ground by using sustainability metrics to uncover true business value to guide decisions. And a pilot can be frustrating because we sometimes feel that the work is not taken seriously among stakeholders, which can lead to a long, drawn out process that demotivates the troops. Either way, food companies need to wake up and recognize the benefits of LCA pilots and the value of the insights that can be gained.

Is your data collecting dust?

To be fair, there are a lot of companies doing legitimate pilot projects and we’ve been involved in many that have led to bigger and better things – for us and for our clients. But, like many in our industry, we’ve completed a number of pilot projects that have been left on a shelf to gather dust — no matter how relevant and eye-opening the results. And in a young industry like ours, where the value of the work is still largely underrated, this is not really too much of a surprising outcome, but it can be disappointing.

Pilots can be a useful testing ground for exploring options or developing new methodologies of work, such as sustainability measurement projects; however, they can only provide real ROI when certain motivations and intentions are built in to the process.

5 Best Reasons to Invest in a Pilot Project:

1)     Tiptoe into a new field without overextending your internal resources.

2)     Test one or more service providers to gauge the accuracy and value of their results.

3)     Work towards one or more key indicators to support your decisions and overall strategy.

4)     Prepare the debate, internally and externally, so that the results produced can drive real change.

5)     Get ROI even before investing big.

5 Best Ways to Get Value out of a Pilot Project:

1)     Consider it the tip of the iceberg to meet a long term goal (not a stand-alone project).

2)     Use the results of your pilot to narrow your project focus to answer your most pressing business questions.

3)     Dedicate enough resources (time and money) to get quality and accurate results.

4)     Choose a provider who understands your motivation and delivers the solution that best meets your needs.

5)     Consider a failure a success! Failures can often be even more insightful than successes.

5 Key Things Companies Should Look Out For:

1)     Don’t pay too much for a pilot (remember, it should be part of a larger project’s budget).

2)     Don’t pay too little for a pilot (you will only get what you pay for).

3)     If you go with a big name, make sure you pay for the quality of the results and not just for the PR value of that name.

4)     Don’t bail out of the whole project if the pilot doesn’t meet your expectations or assumptions.

5)     Don’t shy away from communicating your successes and insights. Even if it’s a small pilot, the industry needs success stories.

Your next step

To those who have completed pilot projects and are not sure what to do next, it may be time to designate someone – internally or externally – who can breathe new life and figure out how the results can fit into a bigger project. Like any investment, the ROI comes from the implementation of decision made following an assessment, not just the assessment itself. If the data is collecting digital dust, you’re unlikely to get buy-in for your next attempt at sustainability.

And to those considering a pilot project to help drive their sustainability action plan, first clearly define your motivations (this will affect a lot of decisions you make about which tools and approaches to use). Then, make sure you have the commitment and the budget to go beyond the pilot once it’s completed.

And for those of you who have already gone beyond the pilot, bravo!

Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry featuring the Carbonostics suite of web-based applications for carbon & energy accounting and reporting, product portfolio assessments, product carbon footprinting, and lifecycle analysis. Visit: www.carbonostics.com.

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