What does Living Life Cycle Assessment mean, and how can you do it?

Since LCAs were first done 50 years ago, until just about now, Life Cycle Assessments have been studies: modeling and analysis projects, written up in reports. This is reflected in the ISO standards for LCA, which provide detailed requirements for what shall be included in the report, depending on the goal and scope of the study. Indeed, the “General Requirements” section (4.1) of 14044, Requirements and Guidelines for LCA, refers repeatedly to “LCA studies” as the subject of its focus.

This perspective on LCAs-as-projects is also embodied in how LCAs are bought and sold in the marketplace. What ISO refers to as the “commissioner” of the study engages the “practitioner” to undertake the study, and to write up the results in a report that is made available to “third parties” and possibly to the general public. These LCA studies of a product routinely require 3-6 months or more to complete, with costs routinely on the order of $50K.

Think of environmental impacts before investing money

An entrepreneur friend of mine (who was formerly an LCA practitioner himself) recently commissioned an LCA study in response to pressure from multiple customers to provide LCA information about his company’s products. The first draft of the report generated a wealth of questions for my friend, but his consultant informed him that the project scope was fixed and that his numerous what-if questions were out of scope and would need to wait. The study has taken more than a year to complete and his questions are still on hold, as are many of the sustainability-improving decisions he is eager to prioritize and to make.

A report is static, not interactive. It can’t respond to new questions that it might inspire. It’s a snapshot in time of a model built from data building blocks that are each snapshots in time. Visualize a dinosaur skeleton constructed painstakingly from thousands of carefully excavated and polished bones, large and small. An LCA study report is a fossil built of fossils.

My friend commissioned his LCA study because his customers have made commitments to achieve environmental targets and to generate environmental progress. If his report shows that his product is better than the generic average, this will help his customers meet their targets; if his customer switches from an inferior competitor to him, this can help them generate reportable progress. The job performance evaluations for his contacts at these customer companies even depend on such performance and progress. My friend is therefore in the hunt himself for performance and progress. Which is the source of his what-ifs, and of his frustration with fossil LCA. He needs, we need Living LCA.

He needs an interactive model that he can continue to query as today’s results generate new questions about how to improve tomorrow. He also needs a model that somehow captures and communicates news to his customers about progress that he makes, and progress generated by innovations in his supply chain.

Earthster is designed to enable Living LCA. To create a Living LCA in Earthster, you can start with a data template which has been pre-built from building blocks of best available data from today’s best LCA databases, as is done when constructing a new fossil LCA. But then you augment this initial backbone with living data – data that updates as the world updates. You link information about your own operations into your LCA, so that as you make decisions and improvements, these are reflected in the LCA. And you never stop asking your model “what if.”

Your initial LCA helps you to identify your key suppliers, so you next use Earthster to invite them to get into the dynamic dance of Living LCA, to begin building their own ever-improving understanding of their own ever- improving impacts. Earthster lets you replace a fossil estimate about their processes with a dynamic, flexible connection to real and living data on their impacts. They do the same with their key suppliers, so that your understanding of your impacts – and their continuous improvement – spreads out further into the economy.

Imagine static bones or concrete forms being replaced by strong and growing vines and resilient wood, flexible and regenerating, growing and evolving more complex beauty with time. Just as water and nutrients flow through plant tissue, data and insights and information about improvements achieved and further collaboration opportunities ripe for initiation all flow through your Living LCA. Picture your static LCAs coming to life.

Indeed, step back and imagine the global economy launching the creation of Living LCAs across itself, as a vibrant enabling infrastructure that will help humanity bring its activity into balance with its biosphere home.