The Nuts and Bolts of Life Cycle Analysis
A conversation with Anne Gaasbeek, Sustainability Consultant, PRé
In the development of the associations’ joint LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) project, TLMI and European sister association, FINAT, have been working closely with PRé, a Netherlands-based sustainability consulting firm and worldwide leader on environmental impact assessment. TLMI Editor, Jennifer Dochstader, recently spoke with PRé Sustainability Consultant, Anne Gaasbeek, on what LCA means to the label converting industry and the ways brand owners are prioritizing transparency and sustainability throughout the supply chain.
Editor: I would like to begin our conversation by asking you how you define LCA when explaining it to someone who knows little or nothing about it.
Gaasbeek: LCA, or Life Cycle Analysis, is an assessment that takes us from the creation of raw materials for a product through to the final disposal of that product. It is tracking all of the impacts throughout each stage of the process, quantifying each impact from a product’s raw materials to the end of its life.
Editor: If I’m a North American label converter why should I care about LCA? How can it help me in my business?
Gaasbeek: LCA is important because it gives converters insights into where their environmental hotspots are and where there is an opportunity to improve. More brand owners are requesting information about sustainability. They want to know that their vendors can provide insight on their environmental performance and that they are working to improve their own environmental stewardship. One of the best ways to demonstrate how you are performing on environmental impact is by using LCA. LCA allows converters to become more transparent about their sustainability practices and it enables them to distinguish themselves in the market.
Editor: Can you explain what you mean by environmental hotspots?
Gaasbeek: If you look closely at your entire product chain, environmental hotspots are where the highest environmental impacts are occurring. For label converters this could be the electricity needed for their presses and auxiliary equipment, or it could be with the transport of their products. Depending upon what type of industry we are talking about, environmental hotspots can be in any phase in the life cycle of a product, from raw material extraction until disposal. Pinpointing where the environmental hotspots are and the main contributors can help to identify improvement opportunities for the label printing industry.
Editor: If I am a large multinational label converter, I think a lot about sustainability because my customers are likely some of the largest brand owners in the world and they have their own internal accountability paradigms when it comes to sustainability. However if I am a label converter with $3 million, $5 million or $7 million in annual revenues, why is this important to me?
Gaasbeek: In order to truly benefit from LCA a small company would need to feel enthusiastic about best sustainability practices and believe that it’s worthwhile because minimizing their impact is important for future generations. Also, if a company is smaller they can be more flexible. Smaller companies can often move quickly on integrating a new program into their culture and now that they know brand owners speak the language of LCA and realize the benefits, they can differentiate themselves in their markets by integrating LCA as an accountability tool.
What I have seen happening in the agricultural sector, and this is a sector that also supplies to many of the same consumer goods companies and brand owners, is that small companies have been able to de-commoditize their products by adopting sustainability as part of their culture and as part of their marketing strategies. Consumer goods companies and brand owners have realized that reducing the environmental impact of their products requires collaboration throughout the supply chain. In order to achieve this they need to build long term relationships, which will enable them to set up sustainability programs with their vendors. These can include recycling programs and sustainable sourcing programs.
You can’t actively work on sustainability without having more active conversations with your customers. In my opinion, this is one of the most important things that sustainability can offer. It moves an industry away from the commodity mindset and toward one of relationship building and trust. This can be a real benefit for smaller companies.
Editor: Earlier in the year PRé conducted a survey on behalf of TLMI and FINAT, asking the associations’ members about LCA. Were you surprised with any of the survey results?
Gaasbeek: We were very happy with the response rates and I would like to thank all TLMI members who filled out the survey for their participation. The survey showed that companies want a tool that measures sustainability. Even though a lot of interest was indicated by respondents however, very few companies are currently working with LCA. The results proved to us that we need to make LCA more available to TLMI and FINAT members of all sizes. This was an eye opener for me, we need to make sure LCA is workable for small companies, as well as larger companies, and many of these small companies don’t know what the LCA process is or what it entails.
Editor: If you had a crystal ball and could look into the future of the packaging industry 10 years from now, do you think LCA is going to become a recognized standard?
Gaasbeek: I think it’s important to say that LCA is not perfect and that it can be a complex process. However, it is the only scientifically validated way to measure a product’s environmental impact. If you want to change something, you need to measure it. You cannot define where you want to go or what you want to do in the future if you are unaware of what your status quo is. Once you start measuring, LCA provides a framework that tells you where you are and the ways you can improve for the future.