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?