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Understand the Full Impact by using the Life Cycle Approach

A recent article in Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, “LNG Supply Chains: A Supplier-Specific Life-Cycle Assessment for Improved Emission Accounting," highlights using a life cycle approach to understand the real impact, negative and positive, of the GHG emissions for the global trade in liquefied natural gas (LNG). While you may or may not be interested in this sector, the approach to gaining an exact picture of the impacts is now becoming more common, which, in my opinion, is a step forward. Using the life cycle approach as in a full life cycle model (LCA) or a simplified version using Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) helps an organization expand their understanding beyond their active part. Instead of glazing over the surface and using regional averages, LCA or LCT forces the organization to go deeper and ask more questions, leading to a better understanding of their impacts. This method is imperative for hitting your sustainability target, whether it is net-zero energy, zero waste, circularity, or even making reductions in your current footprint.

The life cycle process uses system boundaries to define the areas to be studied. It is based on your product as it moves through each of the stages. This product-based method focuses on what you sell to define your specific impacts from doing business as you are in all aspects, including where your supply chain is, what your waste practices are, how you package your material, etc. Many operations can tell you about their specific "piece of the pie" but know little beyond their operational control. A life cycle has two main types, cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave. The cradle-to-gate covers raw material extraction, transportation to processing or manufacturing, and the actual manufacturing stage. Also included in this system boundary is all packaging as the product sits at the "gate" waiting to be picked up for delivery to the network where the customer can access it.

The cradle-to-grave life cycle method includes all the stages mentioned, including distribution, customer use phase, and final disposal or grave. I am not always a fan of the cradle-to-grave approach for all situations because there are many assumptions to be made, and it removes the ultimate responsibility of the manufacturer by shifting the burden of the impacts through the assumed phases. I remember reading an LCA for Levi's 501 jeans and being disappointed because they concluded that the customer use phase used the most water-intensive and was, therefore, the focus of their reporting. What about the suppliers using hazardous materials in the finishing process and exposing their workers and environments to the chemicals? Where is the drive to improve their processes and supply chain? Although the information about water use was helpful, the concentration of the life cycle study should have been on their impacts. For organizations wishing to pursue the principles of circularity, get your processes in order first; strive for zero waste processes first. This will save the organization money and increase its profits, thus leading to more target setting. Once there is little left to accomplish in your organization, move on to those areas in the cradle-to-grave approach, such as customer use and disposal.

Denice Viktoria Staaf

Supply Chain Diva | Sustainability and Circularity Expert | EPD and HPD Approved Preparer | Mentor and Coach | Supporter Women's Empowerment | Green Building Advocate

Member, Education and Research Executive Board (EREB)

VCARE Academy Inc.


Labeling Sustainability Inc.


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