Diving deep into your supply chain to quantify your products’ impact from seed to shelf can seem daunting. But, if you do it right, it can really be worth it! For the first session of our “Impact of Impact Assessments” webinar series, our lead analyst, Anitta Toma, sat down with world renowned LCA specialist, Dr. Kannan Muthu, to understand the true importance of LCA’s, how they’re conducted and how they can be improved.

What is an LCA and why is it important

“Life cycle assessments are a scientific tool used to quantify the environmental impact of a product, process or service through each phase of its life,” Dr. Muthu explained. Each phase of a supply chain modifies the product and contributes to the finished good, so it has an impact, from energy use and carbon emissions, to cite a few.

For sustainability to become the norm, quantifying products’ environmental impacts has to become as important as calculating profit margins and feasibility. The same way you would “account for the costs associated with producing a good to determine its profitability and competitiveness, an LCA accounts for the environmental impact of a good to determine if producing it is environmentally sustainable,” Dr. Muthu explained.

With sustainability on the rise, Dr. Muthu explained that the “only way for brands to claim a product is sustainable, is to perform a robust LCA, otherwise it will be regarded as greenwashing.” Anitta elaborated that “greenwashing makes people lose trust in green and innovative products, so the only way to see what is sustainable is to show them the hard facts, through data.” Quantifying your product’s impact through an LCA serves as foolproof evidence of your sustainable supply chain.

Process and methodology

Before diving into an LCA, it’s important to understand why you are conducting one, as this will help inform the data that you need to collect. This is part of the first step of an LCA – the definition of your goal and scope. If you are conducting an LCA for internal use, to decide what sort of raw material to use, for example, Dr. Muthu says you can rely on secondary data shared by other brands or suppliers similar to yours. But, he shared, “if you plan on publicly disclosing your findings, you absolutely need primary data from your suppliers and production partners.” You must also define your functional unit, which he describes as “how the environmental impacts are measured. It provides a reference to which the inputs and outputs are related.”

The next steps are life cycle inventory and life cycle impact assessment. In these steps you will gather data about the materials and resources used along your supply chain, based on the scope and functional unit defined. The information you gather will also depend on what phases of a product’s life cycle you are studying. The actual data is then “put through credible life cycle assessment software, like SimaPro and GaBi” to run the actual calculations for you.

Lastly, there is the life cycle interpretation stage where the “results are used to draw conclusions and derive recommendations,” according to Dr. Muthu. “The recommendations serve to guide brands on how to alleviate these hotspots.” This is the stage where you tie the results back to your initial goal. Now you have the data to support the impact of your supply chain, so you are able to focus your energy to leverage this data for success.

Supply chain animation

Challenges in our current methodology

Many brands are looking to data and impact assessments to help substantiate their claims. These claims, however, can be misleading Dr Muthu says, as “they are not always backed by and justified with real data.”

Assumptions, like how many times a product is used or how it is transported, laid out in an LCA truly determine the applicability of the study to other supply chains. Yet we are seeing a number of instances where apples are being compared to oranges. Dr. Muthu stresses the importance of “laying out your assumptions very transparently in each LCA report” to ensure that another LCA practitioner is able to determine if a comparison is justified. He urges brands to resist the urge of applying another LCA to their own supply chain without studying it in-depth.

According to Dr. Muthu another main challenge in our current methodology is related to the data availability, quality and reliability. Dr. Muthu suggests “engaging stakeholders throughout your LCA can reduce the uncertainties that would vary your results,” to alleviate this issue. The data comes from each phase of your supply chain, so it truly is critical to make sure you liaise with suppliers and production partners consistently throughout the process, to ensure your results are as accurate as possible.

What we can hope to see in the future?

Anitta asked Dr. Muthu to share what he hoped the industry and methodology would evolve into. He shared two main concepts he’d like to see become mainstream.

Firstly, brands and companies should recognize the importance of conducting LCA’s earlier on in the design process to help inform product innovation decisions. A consequential LCA, one conducted before decisions are made, can “help you focus on hotspots you should be working on and help engineers, designers and management focus their attention on the main improvement opportunities to optimize resource savings and reduce environmental impacts,” Dr. Muthu explained.

Secondly, Dr. Muthu stresses the underutilized benefits of iterative LCAs, whereby you would “adjust the assumptions, scope and functional units to account for unreliable data and a variety of assumptions.” This can help brands truly optimize their supply chains. In his experience, Dr. Muthu has seen several suppliers also taking the initiative to quantify the impact of their processes, helping ensure that data is clean, and readily available when brands require it.

Quantifying your products’ impact from seed to shelf is slowly making its way into the mainstream, as more brands are paying attention to their environmental impacts and as more consumers are asking questions about it. If you’d like to see read about top brands’ experiences conducting LCA’s and how it’s helped their businesses click here!

Dr. Kannan Muthu
Head of Sustainability, SgT Group 

Dr. Muthu is the Head of Sustainability of SgT, the textile quality specialist within the WORMS SAFTEY Alliance, the first global alliance of safety and quality management specialists. With a PhD in Textile Sustainability, Dr. Muthu is a Textile Technologist and has published 96 scientific books and 100 research articles. He has over 12 years of experience in environmental and chemical sustainability and has supported hundreds of factories and international leading brands’ supply chain. He’s one of the Higg Index’s initial contributors and today’s one of the few Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) approved FEM trainers and verifiers in the world.

Anitta Toma
Lead Researcher and LCA Analyst, Green Story

Anitta is the Senior Researcher and LCA Analyst at Green Story. Using LCA methodologies, Anitta uncovers the environmental impacts of a company’s supply chains and compares it against conventional supply chains. Anitta comes with a strong background in research and sustainability, specializing in consumer behaviour towards ethical and sustainable practices.