In these days of heightened concerns over environmental matters, product life-cycle assessment (LCA) plays a crucial role not only in businesses’ technology choices, but also in their long-term strategies. In addition to products of great nutritional value, consumers today expect higher ethical production standards from manufacturers. LCA means agri-food businesses are better placed to reconcile production performance and environmental friendliness.
Definition and origins of life-cycle assessment for food
Life-cycle assessment is a multi-criteria method for evaluating a product’s environmental impact from the design phase to end-of-life. LCA entails four stages through which the contribution to the environmental footprint made by each product system and sub-system is examined. The results of this assessment can influence the technology choices made by firms, and alter product lifecycles to align more closely with consumer expectations.
The beginnings of LCA
The idea of examining production methods dates back to the 1960s. The first incarnations of LCA, although it wasn’t called LCA back then, looked at improved raw materials planning. More limited in its scope, this approach covered only the procurement and production stages. It did however make use of a number of criteria, forming a basis useful to the development of modern LCA.
LCA itself really came of age in the 1990s, with the emergence of the concept of sustainability. The amount of solid waste being produced was a growing concern at the time; life-cycle assessment therefore quite naturally took an environmental direction. Sometimes misused by certain manufacturers, for advertising purposes in particular, the method adopted a more formal framework in the late 1990s with the issuing of ISO standards 14040 and 14044.
The establishment of LCA in the new millennium
The 2000s saw a boom in life-cycle assessment. Mainly used by researchers, LCA then made inroads into corporations. This dual aspect gave rise to a number of different pathways. Manufacturers require streamlined solutions, sometimes even specific to their industry, for specialized functions and more narrowly-targeted assessments.
These approaches are now gradually taking shape, with separate variants of product LCAs specifically for clothing, packaging, and agri-food products. The agri-food industry now fully endorses LCA, making it part of routine practice. There are European initiatives aimed at standardizing how LCA is applied. For manufacturers, environmental aspects are part and parcel of product planning.
LCA methods – Calculating environmental impact
There are four major stages in a life-cycle assessment:
1. DEFINITION OF GOAL, SCOPE AND FUNCTIONAL UNIT
This stage determines the scope of the assessment, the type and quality of data needed, and the target audience for the results. A set of general assumptions establishes the overall direction of the assessment.
The Functional Unit is the factor common to all the products of a system. It is used as a common basis for comparing alternative products. Precisely defined, it summarizes in one sentence the function that the product assessed is to fulfill.
2. LIFE-CYCLE INVENTORY
The inventory consists of estimating the inflows and outflows of raw materials and energy for each process involved. This procedure too follows a certain number of milestones:
- Quantify the economic flows – materials, energy and services – and the elementary flows – acquisition of raw materials, waste and emissions;
- Give a weighting with reference to the baseline product;
- Quantify elements with an environmental impact at each production stage;
- Aggregate the flows to obtain a total impact.
3. LIFE-CYCLE IMPACT ASSESSMENT
The next step is to convert the processes involved into environmental impacts. The elementary flows are categorized by their environmental impact, and then characterized to obtain a quantified measurement of their contribution to the impact.
LCA software packages provide a custom presentation of these results that is easy to interpret and adjust to suit preferences. Flow modeling simplifies the environmental impact calculation and its interpretation.
4. INTERPRETATION OF RESULTS
Interpretation of the raw results (contribution from each process, data completeness, any areas of uncertainty, etc.) plays a key role in future product strategies. A clear and comprehensive conclusion, taking the limitations of the assessment into account, should be drawn from the complex, quantified analysis.
Detecting the sources of environmental impacts makes it possible to pinpoint the processes requiring changes. A clear interpretation therefore forms an invaluable foundation on which swift action can be built.
The influence of LCA on manufacturers
Life-cycle assessment represents a commitment for manufacturers. It requires a great deal of time and money, but it does promise genuine performance benefits.
First and foremost, it is a priceless decision-making tool. LCA supplies data that can be used to:
- Improve procurement and raw materials management
- Reduce waste (including by selecting appropriate packaging)
- Optimize transport
- Compare products available on the market
- Evaluate the impact of new production processes
- Improve a company’s knowledge and its technology choices.
Lastly, LCA improves product life-cycle planning, by taking environmental factors into account from the design phase onwards.
Consumer information issues
Consumers are very keen to know the environmental impact of products, and a quarter of them state it is an important factor in purchasing decisions.
Publicizing an “environmental score” for agri-food products is helpful in more than one respect, as it serves to:
- Guide consumers – who are key stakeholders in environmental preservation – in their purchases;
- Provide transparency as regards product compliance and traceability;
- Enhance corporate image and improve customer retention, which is affected a great deal by issues of ethical manufacture.
Provided they are presented clearly and simply, life-cycle assessment findings offer real added value to consumers. For food processing firms, the current issue is standardized and recognizable food labeling. While general environmental labeling is encouraged in some countries (e.g. by France’s Agency for the Environment and Energy Management, ADEME), there is still some way to go before this vital information is seen on all food products, everywhere. The USDA, for example, tends to restrict labeling to specific aspects such as its “USDA Organic” badge.
LCA in brief
The importance of environmental concerns has made LCA more or less unavoidable for the agri-food industry. It makes the much-needed transformation in production methods easier, and meets a real consumer need.
Environmental aspects are now part and parcel of product information in general. The data produced from conducting an LCA can therefore entirely justifiably be included with other product information. This data, when combined with PLM solutions, can consequently create a consolidated base and provide a full picture of long-term requirements.