Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

What is fair play when comparing product LCAs?

By Joep Meijer on November 20, 2009

You’ve just developed your eco-champion product and have set out to know everything about it. You’ve performed a full-fledged lifecycle analysis (LCA) – with all the bells and whistles – and have some vital results: the methodology report that describes your product, and the interpretation report, which explains the results.

You are all excited about the results. You feel the need to express yourself publicly. What better way to do that than in a comparison to other products? And the great game begins…

The Rules
Most games begin with the creation of rules. The ‘game’ of marketing sustainability is no different.

Is it fair to compare your sustainable product to someone else’s and not invite their input? Not really. In fact, ISO standards require that you involve relevant stakeholders to foster a positive conversation about the approach and the interpretation. One way to do that is for you and all stakeholders to sit together and write up a methodology report.

This report lays down rules that are fair to both products. If you want to make its status official you draft a document describing your Product Category Rules (PCR). All the lessons learned from your internal projects can be integrated in the PCR to make sure that important parts are accurately reflected.

When you apply the PCR to your products you can start to make environmental claims about your product. The official name for it is an Environmental Product Declaration, EPD. The only requirement that stands between you and your claim is to have your EPD reviewed by an independent LCA-expert.

In the EPD, you declare your product’s performance as well that of your competitor’s. It’s like drafting a standard to define a new product parameter called “Life Cycle Analysis for product xyz,” just as you might for other product characteristics and properties, like “xyz durability” or “xyz tensile strength.”

The Game
Take a look at your products and service offerings. Is your goal to gradually green up your entire portfolio, or are you looking for early sustainability champions? Whatever you choose, you will want to baseline something, to define where you stand. So you perform your first quick-scan Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

In the process, you learn what phases of the life cycle are important. You learn what materials, processes and emissions are important. You learn whether you are directly responsible for these important segments, or whether others define most of your sustainability performance.

Where unsustainability scores are high, you work to reduce them. When you learn what matters most, both in methodology and performance, you start to develop a concrete view of how to achieve your strategic goals. Your competitors are doing the same.

The point is, if you want to compare yourself to products that you produce yourself, go right ahead. If you want to compare yourself to other companies’ products, get ready to embark on the next level of fair play.

With the PCR in place you have defined the rules of the game, and leveled the field so everyone can be compared equally.

Sounds pretty fair, doesn’t it?


Posted by Jim Giebutowski on Nov 26, 2009

As a marketing professional , I was intrigued by Joep Meijer's post and searched around for examples of companies that have employed an Environmental Product Declaration to position themselves as progressive with respect to sustainable practices relative to their competitors. I ran across the this EPD from Volvo

A couple of things struck me about this piece:

• The vintage of the EPD – This appears to have been put together for the 2001model year for the Volvo S60. As a relative newcomer to LCA, I always thought that the use of LCA was relatively recent. I’m guessing that competitors are scrambling to catch up, and if I were a marketer in any industry, I’d be looking to see what industry leaders or feisty new entrants have beaten me to the punch here.

• Emphasis on suppliers – I found it notable that suppliers account for 65-70% of a Volvo’s value. Volvo’s goal was to ensure that their top 80 suppliers were certified in some form of a formal environmental management system, and the company has funded a one environmental management program for their suppliers.

• Holistic approach to both impacts and lifecycle phases – With all the talk about carbon footprinting, there’s a tendency to overlook the full range of environmental impacts resulting from industrial production. This EPD spans the gamut of impacts – including other emissions, (such as NO2) human health factors, ozone depletion, and water eutrophication. The EPD also covers each phase of the lifecyle – from materials and production, through the use phase, and ending with recycling and dismantling.

• No mention of the competition – Volvo does not call our specific competitors or make direct competitive statements other than to 1) note a number of “firsts” relating to their environmental practices and 2) challenge their competitors to adopt the standards and metrics in the EPD (see page 5). It would be interesting to know if their competitors have adopted their metrics and standards.

Putting the positive environmental benefits aside , this is an excellent “marketing piece” in a number of respects. It is written in simple, easy-to-understand language, yet is backed up by credible references to various international standards (ISO 14040) as well as quantitative environmental data. It cites specific design and process improvements. It educates rather than preaches or boasts. Volvo comes across as truly concerned about thier impact on their environment - and as a consumer and an American, I walked away wondering why GM or Ford hadn't been thinking about this way back then.

No doubt the design engineering community will adopt the kinds of tools that Sustainable Minds has developed, but my hope is that marketing professionals pick up on these tools as well. I've been to one of Sustainable Minds' LCA seminars, and I was encouraged to see more than one marketing manager actively engaged here. I’d be interested to know what other companies have employed EPDs in this fashion, and which ones represent best practice…please chime in if you know of any. Also, as this document is a bit dated, I’d be curious to know what recent advances have been made in this practice.

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