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This Week in Climate: What is an LCA?

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we discuss Life Cycle Assessments, or LCAs, which are used to measure sustainability.
Abigail Bassett
Sep 8, 2023 10 min read
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A "life cycle assessment" or LCA is a measurement tool that gives users, consumers, the government, companies, and others an idea of the climate impact of a good, material, process, or other measurable activity over its lifetime. LCAs are a method of measuring sustainability, and they closely examine the environmental impact and sustainability in the production and supply chain of a good, material, or process. LCAs can include everything from the extraction and transportation of raw materials to the final disposal at the end of use. Put another way, an LCA is a “compilation and evaluation of the inputs and outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle.”

The environmental impacts of consumer products have been studied since the 1960s and 1970s. In the early days, the studies were more focused on a comparative context rather than the overarching view of the cradle-to-grave impacts of specific goods. Common examples of this include everything from the debate around which was better for the environment: Fluorescent bulbs vs. incandescent bulbs and disposable vs. cloth baby diapers.

It wasn't until the 80s and 90s that it became clear that consumers, the government, and companies needed a better idea of the long-term impact of goods on the environment. As scientists started coordinating results and measures, complementary methods and procedures from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) came into being. That allowed for the LCA to be adopted into These programs made way for the LCA to be adopted into modern policy and legislation, not just within individual companies but across the world. Since then, LCAs have been integrated into everything from policy-making to marketing language for goods in the modern era. Today, LCA methods are used as the backbone of other types of life cycle assessments, including life cycle sustainability assessment ( also known as LCSA) and the Social and socio-economic Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA), which include some social impact measures.

Why does an LCA matter?

The primary purpose of an LCA is to identify areas where a product or service can be improved to reduce its environmental impact. It offers a holistic view to help ensure that problems are not simply shifted from one portion of the supply, material, or manufacturing chain to another. For instance, a product that uses less energy during its use phase might require more energy during its production and take a more immense environmental toll at its disposal stage. LCAs help give a more complete picture of what the total environmental and social impact might be.

Basic Elements of an LCA

There are many ways of conducting an LCA and plenty of requirements to be met (ISO 14040:2006 lays out the principles and framework for LCAs). There are, however, a few essential elements that these assessments take into consideration. These include material extraction, production, consumer use, and disposal or end-

Material Extraction & Manufacturing

A significant contributor to a product, material, or process's impact on the environment comes from the beginning of the lifecycle–at the material extraction level.

Take the fluorescent bulb as an example. It contains heavy metals like Mercury, which is liquid at room temperature and mined in places like China, Spain, and California. Mercury is one of the most toxic compounds in the world, as it is bioaccumulative and can have wide-ranging human and ecological impacts. Most Mercury is a byproduct of gold mining in the US because it is difficult to extract.

This stage also includes collecting, creating, and mining or acquiring the materials needed to produce the good, material, or process.


Once the materials are acquired, the product, material, or process is put into production. Typically, this includes a multi-step process where the raw materials are turned into the components of the finished product, the product is manufactured and assembled, and the final piece is packaged and transported.

Some LCAs end at this stage, which is known as a “cradle to gate” assessment. This type of assessment is common with business-to-business (B2B)  products. It’s also important to note that some models break out transportation as a separate stage of manufacturing outside of production.

Consumer Use

This stage is when the product, good, or process gets into the consumer's hands for use. Frequently, this stage is thought to be the most environmentally impactful. For example, if a consumer purchases a shirt, they may use more water resources to keep it clean than it took to produce the shirt itself. It has also been relatively under studied.

Disposal and End of Life

Waste is a natural byproduct of consumption, and it’s accounted for in this element of an LCA. Frequently, items are discarded, destroyed, or recycled, and the environmental impact of these processes is taken into account.

At the end of a life cycle assessment, companies get an EPD or Environmental Product Declaration, which gives details of the LCA and is based on ISO 14025. It's important to note that there are several different lifecycle models, including cradle-to-gate, gate-to-gate, cradle-to-cradle, well-to-wheels, economic input-output, and environmental impact.

Pros and Cons of LCA

Like most assessment tools, there are plenty of pros and cons to LCAs and their various manifestations. LCAs can help give consumers, companies, and governments an idea of the environmental impact that a product, process, or good has. Companies frequently leverage these LCAs to market their goods or products as “green,” “sustainable,” or “earth-friendly.”

Unfortunately, LCAs don’t always account for human behavior (or waste), and there are many ways to slice data and information to get the desired outcome.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett